Pakistani commandos dropped from helicopters Wednesday into an area behind Taliban lines about 80 miles from Islamabad, the capital, and regained control of a key town, the army said. But authorities faced a fresh challenge after militants seized a police station, holding dozens of officers hostage.
Helicopters dropped troops before 8 a.m. near Daggar, the main town in the Buner district, the army said. The area has seen fighting between the military and Taliban forces for several days.
The army said it had killed at least 50 militants in Buner in two days of fighting but estimated that 500 fighters remained. The offensive might last a week longer, the military said, given that troops were running into stiff resistance in mountainous areas.
“We assure the nation that armed forces have the capability to ward off any kind of threat,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters in Rawalpindi.
In other developments Wednesday, Pakistani officials said a suspected U.S. missile strike killed five people in Pakistani territory along the border with Afghanistan. Such attacks by unmanned aircraft, or drones, are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, drawing criticism that the nation’s sovereignty is being violated.
Abbas said the army had destroyed two ammunition depots that held arms for the militants but had not managed to reach several towns in Buner where Taliban fighters remained entrenched, including Pir Baba and Ambela.
Eighteen police and paramilitary personnel seized by the Taliban in the Pir Baba police station Tuesday were freed Wednesday, but about 50 hostages remained in the hands of militants.
“The army has implemented this operation pretty well, but unfortunately the Taliban got ahold of some police stations before the troops got there,” said Zafar Hilaly, an analyst and former ambassador. “And knowing the way the Taliban operate, this could mean long, drawn-out negotiations.”
At the briefing, Abbas also showed a video of a teenager he said was a would-be suicide bomber the militants had persuaded to target security personnel.
“The militants are using people of Buner as human shields,” he said. “But the military will flush the militants out of Buner.”
Taliban spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
The government has been trying to push the militants back into their base in the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan, from at least two adjoining districts, Buner and Dir.
Taliban fighters have sought since early this month to expand their influence beyond Swat. They apparently were emboldened after the government agreed in February to a controversial peace deal that granted them the right to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, on residents of Swat and surrounding areas in return for laying down their weapons.
Most militants failed to put away automatic weapons, however. This challenge, combined with strong U.S. pressure and growing alarm on the part of Pakistan’s middle class, pushed the government to mount the military operation, analysts said.
So far, the fragile and controversial Swat peace deal appears to be holding, officials said, although discussions have broken down.
The Taliban also issued an order to journalists this week to “shun propaganda.” Analysts said the statement has a tone of desperation as the militants have watched their once-favorable domestic support fall sharply since they expanded beyond Swat.
“The mood in Pakistan has changed among the middle class and the talk show hosts, where before it was generally supportive of the Taliban,” said Hilaly, the analyst. This veiled threat pressing for favorable coverage “doesn’t come from strength,” he said, “it comes from weakness.”
Zaidi is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.