Pakistan strikes at Taliban hideouts

With Islamic militants tightening their grip around Peshawar, kidnapping residents and threatening the city itself, the new coalition government of Pakistan delivered its first military response to the Islamists on Saturday.

The action was limited, with security forces shelling territory outside Peshawar controlled by an extremist leader. Army forces were not used, and the intent apparently was merely to push the militants back from the city's perimeter.

But the shelling was the first time the new civilian government, which has been committed to negotiating peace accords with Pakistani Taliban and other Islamic militants, resorted to military action.

In response, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, announced that he had suspended his participation in peace talks.

A Pakistani TV station reported that Mehsud had threatened to take the fight against the government to the heart of Pakistan, the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, if military action continued.

In Peshawar, senior military officials said that a regional security force had fired mortar shells against two bases of an Islamic militant known as Mangal Bagh, whose well-armed fighters have taken control over much of Khyber agency adjacent to the city.

“The ultimate objective is to establish the writ of the government where it is challenged,” Mohammed Alam Khattak, inspector general of the Frontier Corps, said at a news conference here.

Khattak said the operation had been undertaken in response to “growing public demand” for a show of force against militants who have kidnapped city residents on an almost daily basis over the past several weeks and intimidated surrounding towns by shutting down the courts.

Saturday's show of force, which included a blockade around the area of Bara in Khyber agency where Mangal Bagh keeps most of his fighters, was limited to the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that is considered poorly equipped and generally demoralized.

The main goal of the operation, according to a senior military officer, was to destroy the bases of Mangal Bagh in Bara. Khattak said he expected the operation to be limited and to be completed in five days.

The peace talks between the Pakistani government and Mehsud have been criticized by the U.S. and NATO on the grounds that an accord would grant the Pakistani Taliban time to strengthen their ability to strike at coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The White House had scant comment. “Extremists pose a threat to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, and we will all continue to go after them when and where necessary,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council.