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Pakistan turns to force against militants

In a switch from its efforts to negotiate, the three-month-old government launched an offensive in the North West Frontier Province amid a growing threat to a major city.

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Indeed, on Saturday, the Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud suspended negotiations with the government over its use of force in the tribal areas.

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Dangerously close

In recent days, there have been reports that the Taliban and other militant groups were dangerously close to taking Peshawar, converging from north and south, even though Peshawar houses the main Army garrison for the entire northwest.

"The Taliban are no longer at the gates of Peshawar, they're inside, making their presence felt in the largest city in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province)," reported the Daily Times newspaper.

This may have been an overstatement, but Mr. Sehgal says that criminal elements were increasing operations under the cover of religious activities in Peshawar, "and the government can't just stand back and let that happen."

Pakistan's prime minister, Yousef Raza Gilani, said that tribal leaders had broken truces with vicious criminal activities: public hangings, kidnapping, and arson.

"No government can afford a parallel government, and we will never compromise the country's sovereignty, dignity, and self-respect," the Associated Press of Pakistan quoted him as saying.

On June 21, a convoy of armed militants drove into Peshawar and kidnapped 16 men from the city's tiny Christian community. The men were later freed.

Some observers say action on such criminals was long overdue.

The weekend's offensive targeted the Lashkar-e-Islam, or Army of Islam, a movement that was reported to have taken over huge swathes of the Khyber Pass. Forces bombed the house of its leader, Mangal Bagh, in the town of Bara, about 28 miles southeast of Khyber's main town, Landikotal, on Saturday. Mr. Bagh had left home for the remote Tirah valley before the attack.

Though he propounds a hard-line form of Islam, and in recent days had sent his men into Peshawar to threaten music and DVD shop owners, Bagh is understood to have little contact with Pakistan's Taliban.

He is, however, thought to have links with the Vice and Virtue Movement, a militant faction that is believed to have sent forces into Afghanistan to fight coalition soldiers.

On Monday, an explosion destroyed the house of a Vice and Virtue Movement's leader, killing six people, although a military official claimed the blast occurred when explosives stored at the house went off by accident.

Watching cities

Meanwhile, given the threat of militant reprisals, security has been stepped up in Pakistan's major cities, including Islamabad, where an unexplained blast caused panic on Monday morning.

Reuters reported that Mr. Mehsud predicted, in a telephone conversation, that the offensive in Khyber would be followed by further operations against militant groups in other parts of Pakistan's northwest – and he threatened retaliation.

"I am warning that the fire will not only burn in tribal areas and Frontier Province, it will engulf Punjab and Sindh also," Reuters quoted Mehsud as saying.

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