ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's military chief denounced terrorists as enemies of the country and Islam but warned his officers Monday to avoid killing civilians as they widen their operations against the Taliban.
The government is seeking to capitalize on general public support for its six-week-old offensive in the Swat Valley region and open a new front in a nearby lawless tribal zone where al-Qaida and the Taliban are entrenched.
The military action is being welcomed by the United States as a strong stand against militants after years of failed offensives and striking deals rather than confronting Taliban hard-liners head-on.
But the politically weak government is also keenly aware that public support could sour if civilian casualties become heavy or if the task of resettling more than 2 million refugees displaced by fighting in the northwest is badly handled.
A top official in the northwest said Sunday that the government had given the order to send the military after Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. The announcement was interpreted as effectively giving the go-ahead for a fresh military offensive in Waziristan, the semiautonomous tribal region on the border with Afghanistan that is rumored to be a hiding place of Osama bin Laden and where Mehsud makes his base.
The military reportedly closed key roads leading into the area, but there was no sign of fighting.
In a carefully stage-managed event Monday, three television outlets taped the armed forces chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, dressed in a tight-fitting flight suit clambering into the copilot's seat of an F-16 fighter-bomber before taking off for a flight over the Swat Valley.
Before the trip, Kayani denounced Mehsud and the Taliban leader in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, saying they had nothing to do with Islam.
Anti-Taliban protest: In the southern city of Karachi, hundreds of protesters furiously beat and kicked effigies of Mehsud and hardline cleric Sufi Mohammad, who negotiated a failed peace deal that handed control of Swat to the militants. "They are the murderers of the Muslims," the mob chanted, setting the effigies alight.