Pakistan's military has opened a new front in its offensive against Taliban militants in the country's northwest. Troops are pursuing an estimated 500 militants in Buner district, a region just 100 kilometers from the capital.
Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas says security forces, backed by attack helicopters and jets have moved into Buner district. He says the operation is focused on the estimated 500 Taliban militants now camped out in the mountainous terrain.
"First and foremost is to eliminate them or to expel them out of the area," said Abbas. "So therefore we will start from various positions and will move forward with our firepower and clear the valley of militants."
Abbas declined to give details about the numbers of troops involved, but said planners expect the operation to last about one week.
Groups of Taliban fighters moved into Buner earlier this month, after the government agreed to the Swat peace deal. Under the deal, the government pledged to establish Islamic courts enforcing Sharia throughout the Malakand region. Swat militants promised to disarm.
Instead, militants moved into other Malakand districts, including Buner, Shangla and Lower Dir. The Taliban and the mediator of the peace agreement said militants would not disarm until the courts were fully operational.
The expansion of Taliban held territory provoked sharp criticism from top U.S. officials last week. They had long been skeptical of the Swat peace agreement.
The army launched an offensive Sunday against militants in Lower Dir. Government officials say they have taken control of the district and killed about 75 Taliban fighters.
Hours before the Buner offensive began, mediator Sufi Muhammad's spokesman Ameer Izzat urged the military to halt the Dir offensive and re-enter talks. He said if the military uses force, it will backfire.
He says if the government wanted peace by using force, they would have achieved it in Swat. Instead, he said 80 percent of Swat has been lost to the Taliban and in the rest of it there is lawlessness.
Military officials have acknowledged the military's lack of counter-insurgency experience contributed to its failed campaign against the Swat Taliban last year.
Army spokesman Abbas says the military has learned from past mistakes and is doing more to prevent civilian casualties.
General Abbas also defended the government's decision to enter Buner, despite pleas from mediators to halt military operations. He played a recording of what he said were telephone conversations of Swat Taliban leaders. In the conversation, the parties describe a plan to give the appearance that Taliban fighters were leaving Buner, when in fact they had no intention of doing so.