Pakistan's newly elected government launched the first major assault against militants in the country's volatile northwest on Saturday, destroying a militant leader's headquarters and shelling suspected hideouts of other fighters.
The offensive in the Khyber tribal region appeared to mark a refinement in strategy by the new government, backing its calls for peace deals in the tribal areas along the Afghan border with the threat of forceful action against militants who get out of line.
The United States said such deals were giving militants the freedom to regroup for attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. With growing militant threats to the nearby Pakistani city of Peshawar and to the key Khyber supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan Pakistan took action.
Late Friday, 700 troops from the paramilitary Frontier Corps moved into Kyber in preparation for the offensive, a round-the-clock curfew was imposed in the Bara area, and heavy contingents of troops blocked the main road from Peshawar into Kyber, local officials said.
By Saturday afternoon, the Frontier Corps began shelling suspected militant hide-outs in the mountains, local official Muhammad Siddiq Khan said.
Authorities blew up the headquarters of militant leader Menghal Bagh in a scene broadcast on national television. Bagh fled to the remote Tirah Valley along the Afghan border, a military intelligence official in the frontier said, speaking on condition of anonymity because identifying himself would compromise his work.
In recent weeks, Bagh's fighters waged attacks in Peshawar in what provincial officials say was an attempt to prove they wield influence outside the tribal regions and to intimidate the population. Bagh's followers also have been accused of threatening supply convoys bound for coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Alam Khattak, head of the Frontier Corps, said his troops destroyed three militant centers in Bara and killed one attacker in the operation, which was expected to last up to a week.
"We have occupied, captured all important heights, and we have taken control of the area," he said. Hinting the offensive would not be last, he said, "Other pockets of resistance and crime will also be visited."
The operation was also expected to target Haji Namdar, whose Vice and Virtue Movement is suspected of attacks against coalition soldiers in Afghanistan. Namdar has sought to impose his own strict brand of Islamic law in the region.
"If the government thinks there is any issue to address, that should be resolved through talks, not by the use of force," said Munsif Khan, spokesman for Namdar's group. "We are ready for talks with the government."
In response to the offensive and other confrontations with security forces, Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan, said he was suspending talks between his allies and the government. He implied his forces could cause trouble in Pakistan's main cities.
"Peace cannot be brought with force and aggression. This will be very unfortunate for the Pakistani nation if fighting starts again," he told The Associated Press by telephone.
The new government elected in February eclipsed former army strongman and U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf. In a policy shift, the new administration supported peace talks with Taliban militants to try to curb an explosion in violence in the northwest.
But as militant activity grew, Pakistan's top political and military leaders signaled they would use force if necessary to combat militancy.
Concern has grown in recent weeks about militant threats to Peshawar. Two weeks ago, a Taliban force from Khyber entered the city and briefly kidnapped 16 Christians.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief in the tribal regions, said the Taliban took advantage of a leadership vacuum in Islamabad, where the coalition government is paralyzed by infighting, to take control of the tribal regions along the border. Now, the Taliban "are on our doorstep" around Peshawar, he said.
"The situation is like water flowing into a field and until you have some obstruction to stop it, you will drown. We are drowning," he said.
Taliban have posted notices in some villages outside Peshawar telling residents to shun the judiciary and seek justice through their courts, he said.
Misrri Khan, who works for a tribal paramilitary force that patrols Khyber, said the militants kidnapped 16 of his fellow officers and threatened to behead them and then to take more captives if they did not abandon checkpoints in the area. Khan said the force refused.
Afrasiab Khattak, chief negotiator for the provincial government, said the province was considering a second operation in the Swat area, which is wracked by violence despite a peace deal between the provincial government and a radical pro-Taliban cleric.
Police in Swat found the bodies Saturday of four people apparently killed by militants and defused three bombs weighing a total of 45 pounds that had been planted along a main road, Swat police chief Waqif Khan said.
"The Gravest Threat We Have Faced"
News of the planned deployment came as concerns built up over the security of Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP that is now at the center of almost a week of intelligence warnings suggesting that the Taliban were poised to take over the city, reports CBS News' Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad.
On Saturday Pakistan's prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani visited Peshawar in a show of his government's determination to tackle the security challenge. But ahead of his arrival, a small bomb blew outside a barber shop in yet another example of eagerness by Taliban militants to attack their version of non-Islamic symbols.
Hardline Taliban have threatened to close down barber shops in other parts of the NWFP on the grounds that shaving is forbidden in Islam.
The threat to Peshawar marks the first time ever that a Pakistani provincial capital has been threatened by the Taliban in this way since the country joined the U.S.-led war on terror.
The senior Pakistani security official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said, "This is the gravest threat we have faced ever to a large city."
A second security official who also spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said, "We have to take decisive action and our options include the military option. We cannot let these people (Taliban) make further inroads."
Lieutenant General (retired) Talat Masood, a respected commentator on security affairs, told CBS News: "Unless there is a very determined effort to tackle this problem, the threat of Taliban will only grow."
General Masood warned that the growth of the Taliban may have been helped by Gilani's government's widely-held image of still being unable to bring about a strong focus to deal with Pakistan's security challenges, notably the problem of confronting the growth of the Taliban movement.
The new government came to office in February, largely on a vote built in opposition to U.S.-backed president Musharraf. Western officials including U.S. officials have opposed new peace initiatives taken by the government.
These initiatives are built upon commitments from leaders of Taliban militants to stop fighting Pakistani military troops in return for the government withdrawing the military from parts of the NWFP. In recent weeks, such an agreement in Swat, a picturesque northern valley which has been a center of Taliban activity, has been criticized by western diplomats in Pakistan.
"The very fact that the Taliban continue to advance even after the agreement in Swat says much about the futility of such peace initiatives," one western diplomat in Islamabad told CBS News on condition of anonymity. "The situation in Peshawar must be an eye opener. You cannot reason with the Taliban, you have to fight them" he added.