By ZAHID HUSSAIN
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Taliban seized control of another district in the country’s northwest just 70 miles from the capital after consolidating their hold on the Swat Valley, according to local government officials and residents.
The latest Taliban advance into the Buner district has spurred fears that a controversial peace accord, which allows the militants to enforce sharia law in Swat, has emboldened them to expand their influence.
Militants have been moving into Buner since the Swat peace deal was signed with the government in February. But starting Tuesday night they seized control of the entire district, which has a population of more than one million people, local government officials and residents said. Heavily armed militants, streaming in from neighboring Swat, occupied government offices and set up their own checkposts. Terrified residents fled their homes.
Dozens of hooded fighters carrying rocket launchers and machine guns ransacked the offices of international aid and development agencies working in the district and took away their vehicles. Some employees of the agencies were also briefly taken hostage. The militants set up their headquarters in the town of Buner after driving out government officials.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday the Taliban advance poses “an existential threat” to Pakistan and urged Pakistanis world-wide to oppose a government policy yielding to them. Pakistanis “need to speak out forcefully against a policy that is ceding more and more territory to the insurgents,” Mrs. Clinton said in testimony before a House committee.The Taliban have banned music and television and stopped women from entering a popular shrine of a Muslim saint. They are also using mosques to invite local youth to join them.
A Taliban commander said Islamic sharia courts would soon be established in the Buner district as they have already been in Swat. Mohammad Khalil said the main objective was to end the “sense of deprivation” among locals and provide speedy justice to the people.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for North West Frontier Province, warned that the militants’ activities in Buner were in violation of the Swat peace accord. “After the agreement, there is no justification to take up arms,” Mr. Hussain said in a statement Wednesday. He denied, however, that the Taliban have total control over the area.
Rehman Malik, the federal home minister, said the government has the option of using force if the Taliban don’t withdraw from Buner. A senior military official said a military operation couldn’t be ruled out to stop the Taliban advance. Analysts said the fall of Buner to the Taliban comes as a blow to the government’s efforts to contain Islamic militancy, which threatens Pakistan’s overall security. The people of the area had previously rebuffed Taliban raids, but lack of support from the security forces broke their resistance.
The development came after Sufi Mohammed, a radical cleric who played a central role in signing the peace accord, called on his followers to continue their struggle for the enforcement of Islamic rule in the entire North West Frontier Province. “The Western democracy is infidels and should be rejected by Muslims,” he said.
U.S. officials have warned the Swat peace deal could turn Swat into a launching pad for militant expansion into Pakistan’s more densely populated plains. The militants have made it clear they wouldn’t lay down their weapons, which is a crucial plank of the peace accord.—Jay Solomon in Washington contributed to this article.