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Pakistan resumes peace talks with Taliban amid heavy offensive

To bolster tenuous progress, the Army must push on to drive the Taliban out of Swat Valley, according to some analysts.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2009

Soldiers of Pakistan security force are on their way to troubled Swat valley in Pakistan at Rustam on Thursday. Troops sent to repel a Taliban advance toward the Pakistani capital killed 14 suspected militants, the army said Thursday, and accused insurgents holding an entire town hostage.

Mohammad Sajja/AP

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Lahore, Pakistan

After five days of heavy fighting between the Pakistani military and Taliban forces in the country's Northwest Frontier Province, the first glimpse of a possible cease-fire appeared Friday following the resumption of talks between the provincial government and Sufi Mohammad, the spiritual leader of the Swat Valley Taliban.

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Pakistan's progress in its battle against the Islamist insurgency, however, may hinge upon the government's willingness to send the Army into the Taliban stronghold of Swat to complete the job, according to some analysts.

"If they are serious, they will have to go back into Swat. Is this going to be another case where they push them back – allow them to regroup later and reemerge at a different point – or will they go on to eliminate them?" asks Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia."

The Taliban, which has held the Swat Valley since 2005, first entered the districts of Buner and Lower Dir, some 62 miles northwest of Islamabad, at the beginning of April, creating panic within Pakistani civil society, the government, and abroad. The alarming rate of Taliban expansion led US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare that the nuclear-armed state was becoming a "mortal threat" to the world. A counter-attack by the military began last Sunday.

On Friday, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that 55 to 60 militants had been killed in the fighting in 24 hours, bringing the militant death toll over the course of the operation to more than 100. He said that two security personnel had also been killed. Earlier in the day, 10 paramilitary personnel were also reported kidnapped from Buner.

The developments have mostly been met with optimism. According to Talat Hussain, a senior journalist with the Aaj TV network, a Pakistani news channel, "So far, what we have seen leads us to believe it is for real," adding that the Army has been "successful in casting a net around Buner while the response in Dir was both swift and deadly.

"The Taliban have been put on notice - nobody will be allowed to impose their will on others. Threats to life and liberty will be [met] by force."

Ismail Khan, the Peshawar bureau chief of Dawn, a leading English-language daily, adds: "It appears to be a more determined effort by the Army. There's a greater sense of urgency – it seems to be more targeted and focused, and they aren't taking prisoners, which is a significant break from the past."

The US has pushed Pakistan to battle the Taliban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, praised Pakistan for the offensive and said the Taliban had overreached in their attempt to control Buner and Dir. He also urged lawmakers to approve the president's war-spending request, which includes $400 million to help Pakistan fight the Taliban, the first installment of a five-year, $3 billion plan.

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