KHYBER AGENCY, Pakistan - 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.