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Pakistan takes action against Taliban militants

Pakistan launched a military operation against militants Sunday in a district that has been covered under a controversial peace deal with the Taliban, suggesting a tougher line by the government -- at least temporarily.

The military said at least 30 militants were killed, including a commander of the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban, a Pakistani umbrella group of extremists, as armed helicopters attacked their positions in the Lower Dir district in northwestern Pakistan.

The military action could jeopardize the peace pact, under which the Taliban has been allowed to enforce Sharia, or Islamic law, giving it de facto authority in the Swat Valley and nearby areas.

The United States, some Pakistani lawmakers and analysts have criticized the deal, contending that it could embolden the extremists rather than lead to genuine peace. Some of those fears appeared justified when Taliban fighters moved into the Buner district abutting Swat, hoping to extend their influence.

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Government warnings caused the groups to retreat to Swat late last week, although militants were still on the streets when a reporter visited Saturday. Residents said they were local Taliban members.

Sunday’s action may have been intended to send a signal to the Taliban. The attack was carried out in the hometown of Maulana Sufi Mohammed, an influential cleric who brokered the peace pact.

Also Sunday, the remains of Polish geologist Piotr Stanczak, who was taken hostage and apparently beheaded by Taliban militants, were delivered in a casket to a paramilitary camp, Pakistani officials said.

Stanczak had been kidnapped Sept. 28. A video released this year showed his apparent beheading, which Polish officials said they believed was authentic. His body will be handed over to Polish authorities. Despite the new military action, officials said the peace deal remained intact. Under the agreement, Taliban militants were supposed to disarm, although by many indications this has not happened.

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A statement by the military Sunday said the Lal Qila area in Lower Dir was fully secured after the successful operation by the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary unit.

In Islamabad, the capital, top Interior Ministry official Rehman Malik warned militants not to challenge government authority.

“Militants have no option but to lay down their arms because the government is serious about flushing them out,” he told local television reporters. “Enough is enough.”

Analysts said Sunday’s operation suggested that the government was now more willing to challenge the militants, although the effects of its actions might be short-lived.

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The operation probably won’t succeed militarily unless the government sends in significant numbers of infantry, said Tariq Rahman, a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University. And politically, he said, any gains could be temporary because Pakistan is deeply divided on the topic of fighting Islamic militants.

“Unfortunately, in Pakistani society, there’s a view that anyone who uses the name of Islam must be right,” Rahman said. “If you start to see a lot of Taliban get killed, you will probably see more criticism against the army.”

Sunday’s operation, which took place in an area close to Afghanistan and the Swat Valley, a onetime tourist area, was somewhat unexpected, given that the government has appeared more interested in negotiating than confronting homegrown militants.

TV footage showed helicopter gunships flying toward mountains and soldiers guarding a road blocked with paramilitary trucks.

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Malik denied that the government launched the operation at the behest of the U.S. A military statement said the offensive was carried out at the request of the provincial government and residents.

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Zaidi is a special correspondent.

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