Pakistan police flee as Taliban militants extend control

Taliban militants extended their grip in north-western Pakistan, pushing out from a valley where the government has agreed to impose Islamic law and patrolling villages as close as 60 miles from the capital.

Police and officials appear to have fled as armed militants also broadcast radio sermons and spread fear in Buner district, just 60 miles from Islamabad.

Pakistan’s president signed off on the peace pact last week in hopes of calming Swat, where some two years of clashes between the Taliban and security forces have killed hundreds and displaced up to a third of the one-time tourist haven’s 1.5 million residents.

Critics, including in Washington, have warned that the valley could become an officially sanctioned base for allies of al-Qaida – and that it may be just the first domino in nuclear-armed Pakistan to fall to the Taliban.

“The activities in the Swat do concern us. We’re keeping an eye on it, and are working daily with the Pakistan military,” Major General Michael S. Tucker told Pentagon reporters in a 35-minute videoconference call from Afghanistan.

Supporters of the deal said it will allow the government to gradually reassert control by taking away the militants’ rallying cry for Islamic law. Many residents are grateful that a semblance of peace has returned. A handful of officials are back in Swat.

The agreement covers Swat and other districts in the Malakand Division, an area of about 10,000 square miles near the Afghan border and the tribal areas where al Qaida and the Taliban have strongholds.

The provincial government agreed to impose Islamic law in Malakand, and the Taliban agreed to a cease-fire that has largely held.

In recent days, the Swat militants have set their sights on Buner, a district just south of the valley, sparking at least one major clash with residents. The moves indicate the militants want to expand their presence beyond Swat to other parts of Malakand at the very least, under the guise of enforcing Islamic law.

Many in Buner are now too frightened to speak to reporters. However, a politician from the area said that the militants had entered the district in “large numbers” and started setting up checkpoints at main roads and strategic positions.

“Local elders and clerics are negotiating with them to resolve this issue through talks,” Istiqbal Khan said.

The militants in Buner also are using radio airwaves to broadcast sermons about Islam, and have occupied the homes of some prominent landowners, said a police official who insisted on anonymity because he was afraid of retaliation.

He said the militants have also warned barbers to stop shaving men’s beards and stores to stop selling music and movies.

The militants have established a major base in the village of Sultanwas and have set up positions in the nearby hills, the police official said. Militants also have taken over the shrine of a famed Sufi saint known as Pir Baba.

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