Taliban moves to expand control in Pakistan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Taliban militants in Pakistan's Swat valley have moved into another district in a bid to broaden their control despite a deal designed to end extremist violence, officials said Wednesday.
Hundreds of armed Taliban from the scenic northwestern valley have entered Buner district, only 110 kilometres (68 miles) from the capital Islamabad.
The militants have set up checkpoints, occupied mosques and ransacked the offices of non-governmental organisations, a local official said.
A Taliban commander said they would set up strict Islamic sharia courts in Buner as they have already done in Swat but would not interfere with police work.
Indications of a spread of Taliban activism has fuelled criticism of an accord agreed by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari earlier this month to allow sharia courts in Swat, which the United States said amounted to capitulation.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday Taliban advances posed "an existential threat" to Pakistan and urged Pakistanis worldwide to oppose the deal.
Pakistanis "need to speak out forcefully against a policy that is ceding more and more territory to the insurgents," Clinton said, underscoring "the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by the continuing (Taliban) advances, now within hours of Islamabad".
US President Barack Obama is to welcome Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in early May, an administration official said Wednesday.
Obama is to meet with the neighboring leaders separately and then the three will take part in a summit May 6 and 7, the Washington Post reported.
Pakistan's central government lost control in Swat, a former ski resort and jewel in the crown of Pakistani tourism, after a violent two-year militant campaign to enforce strict sharia law.
It agreed to allow sharia courts in Malakand, a district of some three million people in North West Frontier Province that includes the Swat valley, in order to halt the violence.
"The Taliban who have arrived from Swat have increased patrolling, banned music in public transport and rampaged (through the) offices of NGOs and taken their vehicles," said the local official, Rashid Khan.
"Taliban militants armed with rocket launchers were manning the checkpoints and operating from local mosques," he said.
Khan said militants had so far snatched 16 NGO vehicles and looted milk and oil aid supplies meant for use in the area.
Provincial governor Owais Ghani expressed his "deep anguish on the criminal activities including kidnappings, looting and car hijackings," an official statement said.
"The government's policy of restraint has been mistaken for weakness by criminal elements," the statement quoted the governor as saying, adding that the local administration would use an "iron hand" to deal with militants.
One Taliban commander said his men in Buner would set up an FM radio station and Islamic courts in the mountainous town.
"We will soon establish our radio station. Our Qazis (Islamic judges) will also start holding courts in Buner soon," Mohammad Khalil told AFP.
"We will not interfere in the police work, they can continue their job," he said.
Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman, told AFP from Swat that "the government writ is not being challenged" in Buner and that the Taliban were not creating problems for the administration there.
"The Taliban will leave Buner after enforcement of the Islamic justice system," he said.
However, several residents said they felt "scared" and planned to leave the area, fearing similar violence to that seen in Swat.
The High Court in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, has ruled that all courts will remain closed in Buner until May 2 in view of the "law and order situation", a court official told AFP.
Provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said the government had fulfilled its promises in Malakand, adding: "The Taliban must lay down their arms."
The developments in Buner coincided with arrival of the chairman US joint chiefs of staff Admiral Michael Mullen to Islamabad for meetings with the government officials.
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