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Pakistani truce with Taliban threatened

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The uneasy truce between the Pakistani government and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley appeared increasingly fragile on Monday as government forces attacked militants in a neighboring district for a second day, causing the main negotiator to break off talks.

Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the radical cleric who has been mediating peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Swat, halted negotiations Monday to protest the military operation in the Lower Dir district west of Swat, his spokesman said.

"We are suspending talks with the government until the military operation in Dir is halted," the spokesman, Amir Izzat, said. He said that the Taliban still adhered to the February peace agreement governing Swat but that talks would resume only when the military operation stopped.

The government said it acted against militants in Lower Dir after a local police officer and an administrator were killed.

The operation indicates that the government is trying to challenge the militants, though similar efforts in the past have been sporadic or short-lived, and the Taliban have expanded their reach from Swat into Buner, a district about 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital.

Local residents poured out of Dir on Monday, as government paramilitary forces backed by artillery and helicopter gunships pursued militants for a second day. A military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said that some pockets of militant resistance remained in Lower Dir, but that most of the area was cleared.

At least 46 militants and one paramilitary soldier have been killed in the two days of fighting, the military said.

Taliban militants in their stronghold of Swat reacted with a warning that they would resume fighting unless the operation was stopped. A spokesman for the militants, Muslim Khan, described the agreement as "worthless because Pakistani rulers are acting to please Americans."

Also Monday, a group of armed militants seized control of the telephone exchange in Bahrain, a town north of the Swat Valley, local officials said.

Government officials said they would continue to try hold the Swat peace agreement together but have demanded that militants cease their activities in several districts adjoining Swat and lay down their weapons.

The developments came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, calling their shared border region a "crucible of terrorism."

fast facts

Pakistanis say bin Laden may be dead

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said Monday his intelligence agencies believe Osama bin Laden may be dead, but he added there is no proof. Other Pakistani officials and a U.S. counterterrorism official said they thought the al-Qaida chief is alive.

U.S. officials said bin Laden is most likely hiding — alive — in the mountains along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, in particular the lawless tribal regions. Zardari added that his country's intelligence agencies "obviously feel that he does not exist anymore." But he qualified the statement. "That's not confirmed. We can't confirm that. It's still in between fiction and fact."

Pakistani truce with Taliban threatened 04/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 10:09pm]

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