Taliban militants seized control Tuesday of the frontier town of Mingora in Pakistan's northwestern Swat Valley on Tuesday as they sought to impose their harsh brand of Islamic law in the region.
Thousands of people fled fighting between the Taliban and troops that the government said could lead to an exodus of 500,000 people. The Taliban declared the end of its peace deal with the government.
Buses carrying the residents of Mingora, the region's main town, were crammed inside and out: Refugees clambered onto the roofs after seats and floors filled up. Children and adults alike carried their belongings on their heads and backs — all of them fleeing the fighting they fear is about to consume the region.
Elsewhere Tuesday, a suicide bomber in the provincial capital of Peshawar killed seven people and wounded 15 others. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The latest Taliban advances come as Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari prepared for talks in Washington. Zardari hopes to secure the latest installment in a steady stream of U.S. funding that has been stepped up since 2001, when Washington leaned heavily on Islamabad to back its war on terrorism.
Some U.S. officials have called into question the fundamental stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is led by a relatively weak civilian government and faces not only threats from the militants but sectarian violence and political and economic instability.
The Taliban move into Buner, just 60 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, has heightened concern and fears that Islamic extremists could get their hands on one or more of the country's nuclear warheads.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chastised the Pakistan government for abdicating to the Taliban.
On Tuesday, Khushal Khan, the top administrator in Swat, told The Associated Press that Taliban militants were roaming the area and laying mines. A witness in Mingora told an AP reporter that Taliban militiamen were deployed on most streets and on high buildings, and security forces were barricaded in their bases.
Provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told reporters that a half-million people were expected to migrate because of "the fast-changing situation" near the fighting.
Hussain said authorities were releasing emergency funds and preparing six new refugee camps to house them.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the militants were in control of "90 percent" of the valley and said they were responding to army violations of the peace deal — citing attacking insurgents and boosting troop numbers. He accused the government of caving to U.S. pressure.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been busy trying to reformulate U.S. strategy to fight the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, said Tuesday that he hopes the talks with Zardari will lead to "a common agreement on the nature of the threat and the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan working closely together with the United States and our partners to try and deal with that threat."
He said the Taliban's recent attacks in Buner were a "wake-up call to many in Pakistan."
"Their response in sending the [Pakistani] army into Buner is recognition of that threat," Gates said.
Pakistan agreed to a truce in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts in February, after two years of fighting with militants in the former tourist resort. It formally introduced Islamic law last month in the hope that insurgents would lay down their arms, something they have not done.
Last week, the insurgents moved from the valley into Buner, a district just 60 miles from the capital, triggering alarm at home and abroad. The army responded with an offensive that it says has killed more than 100 militants but has yet to evict them.
"Everything will be OK once our rulers stop bowing before America," Muslim Khan, the Taliban spokesman, told the AP by cell phone, adding that the peace deal had "been dead" since the operation in Buner.
While an army offensive would be welcomed abroad, it was far from certain the government would be able to dislodge the militants, who have had three months under the peace deal to rest and reinforce their positions.
Pakistan has waged several offensives in the border region in recent years that have often ended inconclusively amid public anger at civilian casualties. The country's army, trained to fight conventional battles against rival India, is not used to guerrilla warfare.
The nation is struggling to thwart an increasingly overlapping spectrum of extremist groups, some of whom have enjoyed official support. Few extremist leaders are ever brought to justice.
Also Tuesday, the High Court in the southern city of Karachi upheld an appeal by two men sentenced to death for the 2002 slayings of 11 French nationals and four other people in a bombing outside the city's Sheraton Hotel.
The judges said they suspected that the confession of one of the men, Asif Zaheer, was "not voluntary" and that prosecution witnesses had been "set up" by authorities, said state prosecutor Saifullah, who goes by only one name.
Authorities were considering appealing the acquittal, Saifullah said.
From NPR staff and wire service reports