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Military Offensive in Pakistan Threatens Swat Peace Deal

Thousands of people in northwest Pakistan are fleeing a renewed offensive by Pakistani forces against Taliban militants. With the army saying it has killed more than 45 militants since the operation began Sunday, the fighting casts further doubt on the viability of the region's peace deal that has been widely criticized by U.S. officials.

Pakistani media broadcast footage of thousands of people walking out of the Lower Dir region, fleeing helicopter gunship attacks and artillery strikes against Taliban militants accused of attacking security forces.

Provincial officials in the North-West Frontier Province repeated demands for militants in the Malakand division to honor their pledge to disarm after the government agreed to implement Islamic law throughout the district.

The deal sparked criticism from U.S. officials, especially when Taliban militants began moving closer to Islamabad. Last week, they took over Buner district, just 100 kilometers from the capital. The capture of the strategically important district raised fears militants may threaten a critical highway between the capital and Peshawar.

Provincial officials said Monday that although militants promised to leave Buner on Friday, many still remain in the area.

Pakistan's army spokesman has defended the government's approach in a series of interviews with foreign news agencies. General Athar Abbas tells VOA the strategy has succeeded in one of its main goals.

"The great achievement or victory for the government in this would be that they have politically disarmed the militant groups of the valley," Abbas said.

Officials say the deals have shown to the Pakistani public that while the government has honored its commitment to militant demands for Islamic courts in Malakand, the militants still have not put down their weapons or halted their expansion beyond the Swat valley. Militants have said they will not disarm until the courts are fully functioning.

The army's assault against militant targets in Lower Dir District has left the peace agreement in doubt. Athar Abbas says the government continues to favor talks, but that does not mean it will rule out military action.

"If it could avoid a bloodbath and destruction and displacement, I think that would be a great achievement. But in case it does not work out and they refuse to lay down their arms and insist to continue their struggle for whatever reason, then the government is keeping the military option open," Abbas said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected Tuesday in Pakistan. In Kabul, he emphasized the strategic importance of securing Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan.