PESHAWAR, Pakistan Government forces Saturday attacked the strongholds of Taliban fighters who for the first time had appeared poised to make at least a symbolic strike at a major Pakistani city.
The offensive in the Khyber tribal region just outside Peshawar, the main city in the country's troubled northwest, marked an abrupt about-face for Pakistan's new government, made up of former opposition figures. Until Saturday's action, the governing coalition had sought to negotiate with the insurgents instead of taking them on militarily.
It was unclear whether the operation marked a long-term change in the Pakistani government's approach to dealing with the Taliban. Western nations, including the United States, have expressed deep misgivings about Pakistan striking truces with local Taliban commanders.
In a sign of the central government's ambivalence about fighting the militants, only paramilitary soldiers, who are lightly equipped and poorly trained in comparison with regular army troops, took part in the Khyber operation.
About 700 of the paramilitary troops set up sandbagged emplacements on the city's edge and lobbed artillery shells at militant hide-outs in the foothills leading to the historic Khyber Pass.
In a scene that was shown repeatedly on national television, government troops blew up the headquarters of the main warlord in Khyber, an illiterate former bus driver named Manghal Bagh. He was said to have fled north to the rugged Tirah Valley.
By day's end, the Frontier Corps' commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Alam Khattak, said his troops had seized the high ground outside the city and destroyed three militant bases. One insurgent was killed, he said.
The clash capped days of increasingly provocative actions by the militants, who had filtered into Peshawar from the nearby tribal areas, staging abductions, threatening judges and teachers, and sending pickup trucks full of armed men even into heavily fortified parts of the city.
Most analysts said it was extremely unlikely the militants could have seized Peshawar. But the insurgents showed they could score propaganda points and frighten residents just by giving the appearance of having set their sights on the city, which is less than a two-hour drive from the capital, Islamabad.
"The idea of Peshawar falling is overdramatic," military analyst Nasim Zehra said. "But you have real forays by groups that have no respect, to say the very least, for law and order. They were right on the doorstep."
Across the border in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters employed a similar tactic earlier this month when they briefly seized a strategic district just outside Kandahar, the capital of the south, and threatened to use it as a springboard for attacks on the city. Afghan and Western forces easily drove them away, but the confrontation left many city-dwellers feeling rattled and insecure.
In the Khyber region, insurgents in recent weeks had taken control of main roads, including vital routes for supplying Western forces in Afghanistan. Attacks on military convoys have intensified.
Life went on as usual Saturday in much of Peshawar, a chaotic city where motorized rickshaws, overloaded buses and horse-drawn carts compete for the right of way on crowded streets.
But residents fled the well-to-do western neighborhood of Hayatabad, the jumping-off point for the military operation. Amid villas, tanks clanked through the streets, trucks hauled artillery pieces and paramilitary troops built makeshift bunkers. Cobra attack helicopters thundered overhead. Authorities placed the outlying Bara district under curfew, closing shops and telling people to stay in their homes.
Military commanders said the operation could continue for several more days.