Pakistan blows peace talks aside with new offensive on Taliban

Military changes tactics to launch mortar strikes on militants threatening to take control of Peshawar

Pakistan's military yesterday launched what it described as a major offensive against Taliban forces that were threatening to take control of the city of Peshawar.

In recent weeks, militants have been tightening their hold on villages and towns on the outskirts of the city, capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Truckloads of Taliban fighters armed with automatic weapons have been entering the city, threatening video store owners and others in a "moral crackdown". A number of residents have also been abducted for ransom.

Pakistan's new government had been seeking to broker peace with the militants – a tactic that has drawn criticism from the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan. But with the threat to Peshawar apparently growing, the authorities made the decision to push extra troops into the area and to launch a series of mortar strikes against suspected militant positions in the Khyber tribal region.

Tauseef Haider, a senior official with the Frontier Corps, said his forces had brought in reinforcements and heavy weapons to protect Peshawar against a possible counter-attack by militants. "Since the operation is going on in the tribal area, that is why we have to be extra cautious," he told the Associated Press. "We have increased our strength. We will not let any militant come this way."

Officials said the threat from the Pakistani Taliban had been growing steadily worse. Two weeks ago a group of militants from Khyber entered Peshawar and kidnapped 16 Christians, whom they later released.

"The situation is such that the Taliban are all around Peshawar. They are on our doorstep," said Mahmood Shah, a former security chief in the tribal regions. "The situation is like water flowing into a field, and until you have some obstruction to stop it, you will drown. We are drowning."

The threat to Peshawar highlights the Taliban's steady growth in Pakistan. Many believe the movement is exploiting a power vacuum in Islamabad, where there has been constant infighting since February's election produced a coalition government led by the Pakistan People's Party.

Pakistan's tribal areas have fallen ever further into the grip of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, but for one of the country's major cities to do so would cause an international alarm. The US argues that a major supply route for its troops in Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass would be threatened and, with its allies, has opposed the new government's efforts to negotiate ceasefires with the militants.

Any such initiative appeared last night to be in tatters. Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of the Pakistan Taliban and one of the targets of the Pakistan army's operation, said he was abandoning negotiations. "The talks will remain suspended until the government stops talking about operations and attacks against us," he told Reuters by satellite phone.

Another likely target of the military operation was the so-called Vice and Virtue Movement of militant leader Haji Namdar. The group is blamed for attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.