ISLAMABAD – A Pakistani military offensive against insurgent hideouts prompted suspension of controversial peace talks with the Taliban Monday, and the country's president sought additional foreign aid to assure its nuclear arms remain in "safe hands."
Following the military push into Dir, a district on the Afghanistan border, militants described their peace pact with the government as "worthless," threatening a cease-fire the Obama administration has criticized as a capitulation to allies of al-Qaida.
Pakistan agreed in February to impose Islamic law in the Taliban-held Swat Valley and surrounding districts of the Malakand Division if militants ended a rebellion that included beheading opponents and burning schools for girls.
However, the concession appeared to embolden the Taliban, which staged a foray last week into neighboring Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital, reportedly patrolling other areas in the region as well.
Pressure on the deal grew Sunday when authorities sent troops backed by artillery and helicopter gunships to attack militants in Lower Dir, another district covered by the pact. Thousands of terrified residents fled, some clutching only a few belongings.
The military said the offensive was an attempt to stop insurgents who had plunged the area into lawlessness by attacking security forces and abducting prominent people for ransom. Losing either Lower or Upper Dir would be a blow not only for Pakistan but for U.S. efforts to shore up the faltering war effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
At least 46 militants were killed in the operation, the army said in a statement Monday. Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for the umbrella group of Pakistan's Taliban, claimed insurgents were in the area and killed nine troops and lost two of their own.
"The agreements with the Pakistan government are worthless because Pakistani rulers are acting to please Americans," said Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman in the Swat Valley.
He denounced the military's operation as a violation of the peace pact and said fighters were on alert in case the agreement was pronounced dead by Sufi Muhammad, a hard-line cleric who mediated the deal.
A spokesman for the cleric said he was trapped in his home in the same area of Lower Dir attacked by troops and that his supporters have been unable to contact him.
"We will not hold any talks until the operation ends," spokesman Amir Izzat Khan said.
American officials worry the pact could turn Swat into another haven for militants and encourage extremists to call for Islamic law in other areas of the country.
Western allies have expressed frustration that Pakistan is focusing on archrival India, distracting the government from dealing with extremist sanctuaries on the Afghan border.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari insisted Monday his country was doing what it must to root out domestic militants.
In a wide-ranging interview with reporters from foreign media outlets, Zardari said Pakistan's nuclear capabilities were in "safe hands," but called for more foreign support for his cash-strapped country to prevent any danger of that changing.
"If Pakistan fails, if democracy fails, if the world doesn't help democracy, then any eventuality is a possibility," he said.
Zardari also said Pakistani intelligence thought al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden might be dead, but cautioned there was no proof.
"He may be dead. But that's been said before," Zardari said. "It's still between fiction and fact."
After visiting British troops in Afghanistan Monday, Brown said the safety of the Western world was tied to events in the beleaguered frontier region.
"Stability on the streets of London depends on stability in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan," Brown said. The border areas "are the breeding ground, the crucible of terrorism."
In Islamabad, Brown said Britain would focus its aid on providing services in the impoverished northwest — with a particular emphasis on girls' schooling — to lessen the allure of extremism.
American officials have also expressed rising concern.
Dianne Feinstein, head of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday the Taliban advance in Buner — and the lack of a robust military response — suggested Pakistan was "in very deep trouble."
"This thing has to get sorted out and sorted out quickly or you could lose the government of Pakistan," Feinstein said on CNN television.
Pakistan's foreign minister asked U.S. officials Monday to "not panic."
"We mean business, and if we have to use force we will use force. We will not hesitate," Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the AP on the sidelines of meetings with his Afghan and Iranian counterparts. "We will not surrender, we will not capitulate, and we will not abdicate."
Zardari tossed aside suggestions that U.S. pressure was what prompted the latest military offensive, saying, "I don't think the Americans micromanage situations on the ground."
He also said other offensives in the region were possible.