PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistan's Taliban militants threatened to attack the government of the insurgency-racked North West Frontier Province unless it resigns from office, a move that threw the country into a new security crisis.
Baitullah Mehsud, the warlord who leads the growing Taliban movement in Pakistan, Thursday gave the administration of the North West Frontier Province five days to cease sporadic military operations against Taliban groups and demonstrate its "sincerity" in peace negotiations.
"We will attack the provincial government and the ANP leaders after five days if they do not quit (office)," said Maulvi Omar, spokesman for Mehsud, a warlord based in the tribal area of Waziristan. "The provincial government is playing games with us. It is not sincere in the talks."
Mehsud, whom the Pakistan government has linked to al Qaida, recently described suicide attackers as "our atom bombs," raising the possibility of targeted killings of provincial political leaders. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has accused Mehsud of organizing the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
U.S. officials say Mehsud's Pakistan Taliban have mounted forays into Afghanistan, attacking NATO forces and the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai.
The showdown undercut the controversial national and provincial government policy of seeking peace deals with militants, which Washington has sharply criticized.
The secular Awami National Party, which has pacifist roots, has promoted negotiation with militant groups since coming to office in February elections. But in two parts of the province, Swat Valley and Hangu district, which is on the edge of the lawless tribal belt, the government has called on the army and paramilitary forces to combat local insurgent groups that are allied to Mehsud's Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.
The party now finds itself up against the hard reality of militants who demand Islamic law and the retreat of the Pakistan army from their territory as the price for ending hostilities.
"This is open war," said Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University. "This (ultimatum) will help the provincial government to see things more clearly. They can now take direct action against Baitullah Mehsud because there is a direct threat."
Pakistan army actions against Mehsud in fact have been very limited. In Hangu, the army was forced to step in last week after Taliban surrounded a police station and later killed 16 paramilitary troops — eight of them were reportedly executed after capture.
The army deployed in Swat late last year to tackle a band of extremists that had taken over the scenic valley, which was previously a tourist destination.
And around the provincial capital of Peshawar, the army is currently flushing out Islamist militants — this time not allied to the Taliban — who were encroaching on the city limits.
"We want peace," said Hajji Adeel, senior vice president of the Awami National Party. "(But) if they use force, we will also use force in reaction."
"Why should we resign? We have the mandate of the people, not an individual," he said.
Separately, the Pakistan army announced Friday that it had killed 10 Taliban-linked militants in Hangu, while five troops were wounded. The army said it would continue the operation until the insurgents were "mopped up."
There is little doubt about Mehsud's violent capabilities. His organization is thought to be behind most of the suicide bomb attacks seen in Pakistan over the last year, while his warriors have assumed control of most of the tribal area, the sliver of Pakistani land that lies between the North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan. The Pakistan army and the local paramilitary have rarely intervened.
Khadim Hussain, a political analyst, said: "The NWFP government has not only allowed the militants to reclaim the space but enlarge themselves. People voted for an end to Talibanization and expected them to restore the strict writ of the state."
Many had expected Mehsud to forge a peace deal in Pakistan, in order to concentrate on sending his men into war against the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The Afghan Taliban are reported to have pressed him to end his fight with the Pakistani state, which it regards as a distraction from the war against foreign forces in Afghanistan. But the dramatic threat from Mehsud showed that Pakistan remains in his sights.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)