Authorities in Pakistan say that paramilitary forces backed by helicopter gunships on Sunday killed at least 30 Taliban militants in the North-West Frontier Province. The offensive followed growing international criticism that the Pakistani government is abdicating authority to the Taliban and extremists.
Pakistani officials say that the military offensive targeted suspected Taliban bases in the Lower Dir district. The region is covered by a controversial peace agreement the government struck with militants in the neighboring Swat Valley two months ago.
Under the accord, the government agreed allow Sharia, or Islamic law, in the militant-dominated region and surrounding districts that make up the Malakand Division. In return, the Taliban there would end militant activities and its campaign to impose extremist religious belief on others.
But officials say that Taliban militants have violated the terms of the Swat deal by exporting fighters to neighboring areas, including the district of Buner - only about 100 kilometers from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Authorities say that Taliban militants under the deal were bound to lay down their arm, but so far, they have refused to do so.
Pakistan's Interior Ministry chief, Rehman Malik, says that Sunday's security operation was launched to curb growing militant attacks on government officials and civilians in the area.
And obviously the writ [authority] of the government was being challenged and that is why the action is taken," said Rehman Malik. "And because of that action, about 30 of them [militants] were killed. And their commander [Qari Shahidulla,] has also been killed with his five deputy commanders. And we have taken over the total control of Lower Dir [district].
Malik says that the clashes left one government soldier dead and several others were wounded. He says the operation began after militants opened fire on a convoy of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, wounding four soldiers.
Critics in Pakistan and abroad have accused the Pakistani government of abdicating authority to extremists by signing the peace deal with Taliban to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley.
The Taliban's advance toward Islamabad has raised concerns in Washington that its crucial ally in the war on terror might be in danger of sliding into chaos. It has also raised questions about the ability of Pakistan's army to combat the militants.
Pakistan army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas dismisses these concerns, saying that some militant activity has been exaggerated.
"A false alarm was raised as if the capital has come under threat," said General Abbas. "Nothing of this is true; it is quite unfounded and baseless. One hundred fifty or 200 militants at 70, 80, 90 kilometers from the capital does not pose a threat to the capital."
Malik says that militants in the region have no option but to disarm, adding that the government is "serious in flushing them out."