ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Taliban forces tightened their grip on Pakistan's Swat region on Monday and continued resisting the military's efforts to dislodge them from neighboring Buner, bringing a fragile peace accord closer to collapse and the volatile northwest region nearer to full-fledged conflict.
Over the past two days, extremists in the northwest have attacked a military convoy, beheaded two soldiers, imposed a curfew and blown up a boys' high school and a police station. Early today, a suicide car bomber killed at least four troops near a checkpoint outside Peshawar, also injuring schoolchildren.
The Pakistani army's assault against Islamic militants in Buner, about 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad, is flattening villages, killing civilians and sending thousands of farmers and villagers fleeing from their homes, residents escaping the fighting said Monday.
"We didn't see any Taliban; they are up in the mountains, yet the army flattens our villages," Zaroon Mohammad, 45, said from the relative safety of Chinglai village in southern Buner. Accounts of the fighting by Mohammad and other residents suggest that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is rapidly losing the support of those it had set out to protect.
The heavy-handed tactics are ringing alarm bells in Washington, where Zardari makes a crucial aid-seeking visit beginning today. Troop reinforcements were sent into Buner on Monday after heavy fighting, and there were reports that the army would imminently launch an attack on Swat.
In the past five years, the army has made periodic raids on various militant strongholds but has frequently pulled back, often amid public anger over bombings. Insurgent leaders hold news conferences and spew religious hatred on radio stations with no interference.
Even now, despite the blitz of military operations during the past week, analysts said it is doubtful the army has the stomach for a sustained fight against the growing defiance and ambitions of the Taliban forces if the peace accord does collapse.