By Nahal Toosi
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 27 -- A Pakistani military offensive against insurgent hideouts prompted suspension of controversial peace talks with the Taliban on Monday, and the country's president sought additional foreign aid to ensure that its nuclear arms remain in "safe hands."
The developments came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, calling their shared border region a "crucible of terrorism."
Following the military push into Dir, a district on the Afghan border, insurgents described their peace pact with the government as "worthless," threatening a cease-fire the Obama administration has criticized as a capitulation to allies of al-Qaeda.
Pakistan agreed in February to impose Islamic law in the Taliban-held Swat Valley and surrounding districts of the Malakand Division if insurgents ended a rebellion that included beheading opponents and burning schools for girls.
However, the concession appeared to embolden the Taliban, which staged a foray last week into neighboring Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital, reportedly patrolling other areas in the region as well.
Pressure on the deal grew Sunday when authorities sent troops backed by artillery and helicopter gunships to attack fighters in Lower Dir, another district covered by the pact. Thousands of terrified residents fled, some clutching only a few belongings.
The military said the offensive was an attempt to stop insurgents who had plunged the area into lawlessness by attacking security forces and abducting prominent people for ransom. Losing either Lower or Upper Dir would be a blow not only for Pakistan but also for U.S. efforts to shore up the faltering war effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
At least 46 insurgents were killed in the operation, the army said in a statement Monday. Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for the umbrella group Pakistan's Taliban, said insurgents were in the area and killed nine troops, losing two of their own.