Before U.S. Talks, Pakistan Claims Combat Gains

Islamabad,May 09: Pakistan — As the president of Pakistan preparedfortalks in Washington on Wednesday, the security forces here, underAmericanpressure to show greater resolve in combating militants, claimed tohavekilledatleast 35 Taliban fighters in hotly contested areas of the country’s northwest.
Some of the reported clashes, which couldnotbeindependentlyconfirmedbecause the area is closed to journalists, centered on parts of the Swat Valley, north of Islamabad, where black-turbaned Taliban fighters seized control of Mingora, the area’s largest city, on Sunday, renewing American concernsthat militancy was spreading unchecked towards the capital.
The advances added to a sense of regional crisis. As American andNATOtroops confront militants in Afghanistan, insurgents are displaying increasing self-confidence in neighboring — and nuclear-armed — Pakistan, undermining its role as a key American ally against the Taliban.
On Tuesday, residents flooded out of the Swat Valley by the thousands asthe government signaled a new military campaign against the Taliban and asmuch-criticized peace accord with the insurgents fell apart.
People crammed into cars and buses and headed south afterthelocalgovernment told residents to leave Swat before a government military offensive. Taliban and government forces have accused each other of scuttling thpeace accord, and they traded gun and mortar fire. The Taliban had dug in andlaid mines in the streets, girding for battle, residents said.
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan is scheduled to meet onWednesdaywith President Obama in Washington, where Americanofficialshavesharplycriticized the Swat peace accord and urged the government to fight the Taliban. President Obama also planned to meet Wednesday with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.
The Pakistan military said in a statement on Wednesday that security forces killed 35 militants near emerald mines in theSwatValleywhengovernmentforces returned fire from insurgents. In a separate clash, 27 militants werekilled in the adjoining Buner district, news services reported. The military said insurgents had fired on government checkpoints in several places.
CNN said fighting on Wednesday in Mingora had swirled around a four-story orphanage near the local military headquarters, leaving 80 boys and 20staff members caught between the lines. News reportsalsospokeofciviliancasualties in the Mingora region, with up to 35 non-combatants killed.
The Pakistan military said on Wednesday that, in different parts of Swat, two soldiers died in a roadside bomb explosion and two others were shot to death by militants. In Mingora, the military said, Taliban fighters, swooping down from mountain hideouts, lootedthreebanksandoccupiedtheoffices of the police chief and the ranking civilian administrator. The military did not, however, depict the skirmishes as part of the full-scale offensive the government has signaled.
Two weeks ago, the Taliban used the territory all but ceded to them under the peace accord to push into Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital, prompting American calls for tougher action.
A new operation in Swat may signal the harder stance American officials have been looking for. But the question remains whether the Pakistani military has the will andabilitytosustainitsoperationsagainsttheinsurgents, the vast majority of whom are Pakistani.
The American special envoy for the region, RichardC.Holbrooke,saidonTuesday that the situation in Pakistan was fragile, but he welcomed the turn toward wider military action.
“Until yesterday, the momentum did not appear to be in the right hands,” he told Congress. “The army has now begun a major offensive. We’ll have towait and see how it goes.”
The Pakistani military has battled the militants reluctantly in the past, and five days ago began to engage in heavy fighting with the Taliban in Buner and Dir, another district that borders Swat in the North-WestFrontier Province.
Those campaigns are daunting enough. But the task in Swat remains hugely difficult, not least because the military had already failed to drive out the Taliban in two years of fighting before it finally conceded theFebruary truce and agreed to allow Islamic law to be imposed in the valley.
But public opinion in Pakistan has undergone an important shift against the Taliban since the deal, and it has now apparently given the military more confidence to move with full force.
A recent video showing the Taliban in Swat flogging a young woman as the militants enforced their version of Islamic law shocked the nation. The government has taken great pains to show its efforts to make the Swat peace deal work, going as far as agreeing to appoint judges trained in Islamic law, or Shariah.
Finally, the Taliban incursion into Buner solidified a growing consensus that the Taliban had gone too far and that the military needed to