Fears rise that key Pakistani city will fall to Islamic militants

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Heavily armed Islamic militants have massed on the outskirts of Peshawar, the strategic provincial capital in northwest Pakistan, and the Pakistani government has dramatically stepped up security around the city amid fears that it could fall.

Taliban groups and other extremist warlords now threaten Peshawar from three sides. Should they take over Peshawar, the rest of the North West Frontier Province could follow, leaving Islamic extremists in control of a region that borders Afghanistan and sits astride one of the main supply routes to U.S. and coalition troops there.

Residents of Peshawar, a city of 3 million, have become alarmed at recent developments. Militants have begun entering Peshawar to threaten record shops and other businesses of which they disapprove. Last week, a band of warriors loyal to warlord Mangal Bagh arrived in Peshawar in pick-up trucks and kidnapped a group of Christians, whom they released 12 hours later.

The government has deployed a paramilitary force to guard Peshawar's boundaries, sent in police from other provinces and put the army on standby.

Malik Naveed Khan, the provincial police chief, acknowledged in an interview that "no-go" areas for police had sprung up around some major cities, but he said the situation had been brought "under control" this week.

Khan said the new security arrangement for Peshawar includes 27 platoons of a paramilitary force called the Frontier Constabulary — around 800 men drafted from other provinces — new vehicles and armored personnel carriers.

Rehman Malik, who runs Pakistan's Interior Ministry, has held two emergency meetings with provincial officials and Pakistan's top political and military leaders. On Wednesday, General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, was authorized to direct any military operation, including police and paramilitary forces, in the Frontier Province or the tribal belt that borders Afghanistan.

"The civilians (government) will give the go-ahead. Whenever an operation starts, the army chief will be overall in charge," said Maj. Gen Athar Abbas, the spokesman for Pakistan's army.

The situation in Peshawar, a two-hour drive from the national capital of Islamabad, is challenging the new Pakistani government's controversial policy of pulling back the army and seeking peace deals with the militants. Until a few weeks ago, Islamabad had been caught up in its own political crisis, according to provincial government officials who said their pleas for help had fallen on deaf ears.

"(The central) government has not got to grips with the problem," said one provincial government official who decline to be quoted, because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. "Things have moved fast and unpredictably. Last month we drew up a plan for the defense of Peshawar. We have a vast area to defend, and our forces are thinly spread. They (the militants) have mobility and guerrilla tactics."

Provincial government officials point to the fate of Swat, a valley in the Frontier Province that extremists overran for several months last year, requiring a full-scale army operation to dislodge them. Peshawar, which has an army garrison, would be a much greater challenge for the insurgents.

The provincial government is now considering arming local citizens' groups to act as the first line of defense against extremists, one official said.

Baitullah Mehsud, based in South Waziristan in the tribal areas, heads Pakistan's version of Afghanistan's Taliban, with a following of warlords across the tribal belt and in Swat, but some Islamist militants such as Mangal Bagh are independent operators.

Mangal Bagh and his Lashkar-e-Islam movement, which appears to have thousands of militia members, most immediately threatens Peshawar from the Khyber area to the West, while the Taliban-infested districts of Mohmand and Darra Adam Khel lie to the city's north and south.

Until the bolstering of security this week, 25 villages around Shabqadar, that lie between Peshawar, Mohmand and Charsadda, had become too dangerous to patrol, said Khan, the police chief.

"We sensitized the government to the problem. We told them that, if we don't take action, things can get bad. Now we have charted a plan, and beefed up security," said Khan.

"They (the militants) were testing our mettle. But we will strike back and strike them very hard. We are now firmly entrenched on the ground."

Earlier this week, Baitullah Mehsud's fighters swept into Jandola, a town just inside tribal areas, kidnapped 30 members of a peace meeting and murdered them. In Bajaur, another part of FATA, Friday, hundreds of Taliban assembled to watch the execution of two "American spies." National television showed the militants using a knife to decapitate one man.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)