PESHAWAR, Pakistan —Residents flooded out of the Swat Valley by the thousands Tuesday as the government prepared to mount a new military campaign against Taliban militants and a much-criticized peace accord with the insurgents unraveled.
People crammed into cars and buses and headed south after the local government told them to leave Swat ahead of a government military offensive. On Sunday, heavily armed, black-turbaned Taliban fighters seized control of the Swat district capital, Mingora.
Since then, Taliban and government forces have accused each other of killing the peace accord, and traded gunfire and shells. The Taliban dug in and mined the streets, girding for battle, residents said.
The military push toward Swat comes as President Asif Ali Zardari is scheduled to meet today with President Barack Obama in Washington, where American officials have sharply criticized the peace accord and urged the government to fight the Taliban. Two weeks ago the Taliban used the territory that was all but ceded to it under the accord to push into another district, Buner, just 60 miles from the capital, prompting American calls for tougher action.
A new operation in Swat may signal the harder stance American officials have been looking for. But the question remains whether the Pakistani military has the will and capability to sustain its operations against the insurgents, the vast majority of whom are Pakistani.
The American special envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, said Tuesday that the Obama administration "unambiguously" supports Ali Zardari, even as it puts "the most heavy possible pressure" on his government to fight the extremists.
"Until yesterday, the momentum did not appear to be in the right hands," he told Congress. "It's a state under extreme test from the enemies who are also our enemies."
The Pakistani military has battled the militants reluctantly in the past but is now engaged in heavy fighting with the Taliban in Buner and Dir, districts that border Swat in the North West Frontier province.
Those campaigns are daunting enough. But the task in Swat remains hugely difficult. The military had already failed to drive out the Taliban in two years of fighting before it finally conceded to the truce in February and agreed to allow Islamic law.
But public opinion in Pakistan has undergone an important shift against the Taliban since the deal and has now apparently given the military more confidence to move with full force.
A recent video showing the Taliban in Swat flogging a woman as the militants enforced their version of Islamic law shocked the nation. The government has taken pains to show its efforts to make the Swat peace deal work, going as far as to agree to appoint judges trained in Islamic law.
The Taliban incursion into Buner two weeks ago solidified a growing consensus that the Taliban had gone too far and that the military needed to stop them.
The media, politicians and even religious leaders are now speaking out against Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the main negotiator of the Swat deal, and Mullah Fazlullah, his son-in-law, who has links to the al-Qaida-backed Taliban movement based in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Leaders of the Awami National Party, which governs the North West Frontier province, continue to stand by the deal, which they say was critical in winning people away from the militants.
The deal was popular among the people of Swat, who were desperate for peace. An estimated half-million people have been displaced by the fighting in the tribal areas and the North West Frontier province over the last two years.
But Taliban leaders have shown in the past three months that they have no intention of ending their insurgency inside Pakistan proper.