Backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships, Pakistani troops dramatically expanded a military offensive against Taliban hideouts yesterday after fresh evidence emerged of the militants' determination to extend their reach beyond the Swat valley and towards the capital.
Army chiefs said the operation in Buner, which followed swiftly on the heels of a military bombardment of Lower Dir, was expected to last a week. The aim was to "eliminate and expel" an estimated 500 militants scattered across the strategic valley, which lies just 70 miles north of Islamabad, officials said.
The government of the President Asif Ali Zardari struck a controversial deal in February with the Swat militants, whereby he agreed to impose Sharia law in a vain bid to get the Taliban to lay down their weapons. The accord sparked concern in Washington and London and last week the militants appear to rip it up in any case. They rampaged beyond Swat and into Buner, kidnapping and killing policemen, seizing petrol stations and marble factories and terrorising the local population, before claiming to retreat.
Yesterday's military offensive was triggered by phone intercepts that allegedly revealed how the Taliban had merely staged a withdrawal from Buner. Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, the chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, said that the Taliban had in fact stayed put, continuing to recruit locals for their training camps. "Only a symbolic withdrawal was made," he told reporters at a press conference in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. "Instead [the militants] kept increasing their strength and continued with their activities. As per the latest reports, 450 to 500 militants are occupying Buner. The overall objective is to eliminate or expel [them]."
Military officials then played what they said were phone taps between various Taliban commanders who were leading militants in Buner and the group's chief Maulana Fazlullah, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains of Swat. The conversations were in Pashto and a transcript in Urdu was provided to reporters. The authenticity of the transcripts could not be independently verified.
In one conversation, a commander described as "Fateh", the codename for the Taliban commander Maulvi Khalil, is overheard "vowing to do something that they'll remember". The militants do not give specific details of their plans, preferring to signal their intent with half-finished sentences. More controversially, the transcripts imply that Sufi Mohammed – the frail hardline cleric the government has tasked with brokering the truce with the Taliban – was complicit in the Taliban's stunt of pretending to withdraw from the region.
Mufti Aftab, a Taliban commander, quotes Sufi Mohammed insisting that some Taliban fighters should be seen leaving the valley for the sake of "the media" without displaying "their weapons openly". "These Karakar comrades will be pulled back so that the media can see them [leave], because the commissioner is repeatedly saying we need to show the media something," Mr Aftab says, according to the transcript.
Sufi Mohammed is the father-in-law of Mr Fazlullah. He led a rebellion in Swat during the 1990s and enlisted young men to fight in Afghanistan in late 2001. He was released from prison last year on the condition that he disavowed militancy and helped the government tame the Taliban in Swat.
A top local government official, Syed Muhammad Javed, is also quoted second-hand as urging the media stunt. He has since been suspended from his duties on suspicion of colluding with the Taliban.
The push into Buner marks the second military operation in the past week. "I warn them to vacate the area. We are not going to spare them," said the Interior Minister Rehman Malik.
Yesterday the army said it had already triumphed in Lower Dir, another area bordering Swat, with more than 70 Taliban militants being killed. The fighting has sent civilians fleeing in search of safety. Amnesty International estimated that about 33,000 people had left their homes in Lower Dir over the past two days.
The Pakistani government has come under intense international pressure to crack down on militants within its borders. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Pakistan was "basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists", while the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates called on the country's leaders to take action.
Phone taps reveal cat-and-mouse tactics
The following are translated extracts of phone taps of conversations between senior Pakistani Taliban commanders, provided by the Pakistani army. It was not possible to independently verify their authenticity...
Fateh [Taliban commander leading Buner operations]: How has the decision [to stage the withdrawal] been taken?
Mufti Aftab [another Taliban commander]: The decision took place after Maulvi Saab [apparent reference to Sufi Mohammed, the hardline cleric negotiating with the Taliban on behalf of the government] told us to bring back seven, eight cars and show them leaving to the media. Sufi Saab is there and other advisers are there.
Fateh: We'll say that the Taliban from Swat have left Buner.
Mufti Aftab: Right now the subject is Buner. Everyone is saying that they'll take some people out of there and will show them leaving to the media. And they will not display their weapons openly.
Maulana Fazlullah [leader of Taliban in Swat]: OK, we'll tell Suleiman to move these comrades to the side.
Mufti Aftab: These Karakar comrades will be pulled back so that the media can see them [leave], because the commissioner is repeatedly saying we need to show the media something.
Sheikh Saab [Taliban commander]: We've discussed firm plans for what's ahead... First, the situation in Buner is very hot. The army is ready for an attack... Those who remain there should separate, so that the world will see that the Taliban have left Buner, even if it means that in each car there are only one or two Talibs sitting.
Fazlullah: This is fine.
Sheikh Saab: If this okay, then we're coming. Tell the people there that the comrades should move and hide their arms. Some people should leave.
Fazullah: OK, I'll make contact.
Fateh: If they come now, then I've told the comrades to do things this way. This time, we'll blast the mines as well. We'll also fire rockets. And we'll do something that they'll remember. Tomorrow you'll say you didn't know.