Taliban militants agitating for an Islamic system of justice in a remote northern valley of Pakistan refused to lay down their arms Sunday, one of the conditions of a peace agreement, opening the way for a possible round of bloody confrontation, senior government officials warned.
On Saturday, authorities in the northwest frontier province (NWFP) of Pakistan announced the creation of an Islamic appellate court - a key demand by Taliban-styled Islamists, but officials warned that the move was linked to a Taliban promise to disarm.
"Now, anyone carrying arms would be treated as a rebel," the provincial minister of information in the NWFP government, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, said at a press conference announcing the creation of a "darul qiza" (Islamic appellate court).
However, a senior government official of the NWFP, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CBS News Sunday that the Taliban in Swat (where the Islamic justice system has been introduced) "are refusing to lay down their arms on the crazy pretense that keeping arms is a way of life for people of the area."
In Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, a senior official said the government was actively considering all options for the area, including the possibility of launching a military operation in the valley, if the Taliban refused to "disarm completely."
"Right now, the outlook appears to be very bleak," said another senior Pakistani government official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity. "Do we show more patience or do we simply go in and take charge? All options are on the table."
Conditions in Swat may be one of the issues to be discussed when Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari visits Washington for a two-day visit beginning Wednesday. His schedule includes a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.
American officials have recently shown alarm over an increased determination by Taliban militants to spread out from Swat - and the apparently weak response up to now from Pakistan's civil and military outfits to block the Taliban's expansion.
In the past week however, the Pakistani military has launched attacks on areas near Swat, including the Dir and Buner districts.
However, a senior western diplomat warned that the U.S. remains concerned over Pakistan's long-term future - an issue that is likely to be discussed when President Zardari meets with President Obama.
"Even if Pakistan shows determination right now to act, there is the question of a long-term commitment." said the diplomat. "The effort to beat back these people must be a long-term one."
But on the streets of Pakistan, opinion is divided between those who fear the advance of the Taliban and their reputation for harsh treatment of women (as well as of non-Muslims), as opposed to those who see their value in representing a growing anti-Western sentiment in the country.
Naeem Khan, an Islamabad fruit vendor, believes that the Taliban represent a force that could step up pressure on the country's rulers (owing to public support of the militants) to improve living conditions for those driven to abject poverty.
"This trend (of Taliban expansion) is an indication of how many Pakistanis support their cause," he said. "Whenever you have people driven to extreme poverty, there is always a chance that oppressed people will react in unpredictable ways."