ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A peace deal between Islamic militants and the local government in Pakistan's volatile Northwest Frontier Province is in jeopardy today after militants kidnapped at least 25 police officers and the local government threatened to "fully utilize" the military to reassert its control over the area.
The kidnapping occurred in the picturesque Swat Valley, a former tourist destination where Pakistani members of the Taliban have become increasingly active since signing a peace agreement with the local government in May.
The kidnapped troops and officers, who function as a local police force, were stationed at a newly constructed post in Deloi when they were surrounded by militants, said Major General Athar Abbas, the military's chief spokesman.
"The militants or the miscreants have gone over-active," Abbas told ABC News. "Whenever they find an opportunity, they undertake these kidnappings. In this area, this police force are surrounded."
The Pakistani army later recaptured the post and arrested six militants during a search and rescue operation. Two soldiers were killed in the fighting, including one captain, but none of the kidnapped officers were recovered.
Local residents told ABC News that as many as 37 troops and officers had been taken.
"After a bit of respite, fire has erupted again in Swat all of a sudden," Jan, a local trader, told ABC News.
Today's abduction comes more than two months after regional officials and Islamic militants signed a hand-written, 16-point agreement in which the fighters renounced militancy and the government allowed them to impose Islamic law over the area.
But since that time security has deteriorated in Swat, an area that was once a popular tourist destination.
"The provincial government has struck a deal with the militants, but the deal on the ground is facing great difficulties," Abbas said.
The U.S. has criticized the Pakistani government for pursuing peace deals instead of launching military campaigns against the militants, who have taken control of an increasingly large area along the Pakistan border with Afghanistan. The U.S. believes that militants can use the Northwest Frontier province to launch attacks on Pakistani institutions as well as on coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan.
Last year Swat was overrun by militants before a military campaign partially drove them out. The current government won elections in February in part on promises to make peace with Islamic militants living in the tribal areas. The local government did just that in May.
But the U.S. believes the peace deals imperil Pakistani institutions and also U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.
And since the deal was signed, militants have asserted more control over Swat. They often outgun and outman local security forces, and they have made life miserable for the local population in a once peaceful part of Pakistan.
"This all seems like a drama," Zaffar, a local tour operator, told ABC News. He recently moved towns because he feared for his family's life and because he wasn't busy enough. "There is no business, and hence there is no food to put on our tables," he said.
The military blamed today's attacks on Mullah Fazlullah, a pro-Taliban militant leader who took control of large parts of Swat last year.
On Monday militants ambushed a pickup truck and shot three intelligence agents. A spokesman for Fazlullah took responsibility for that attack, telling the Associated Press it was launched in revenge for the alleged torture of militants by security forces.
A militant spokesman also claimed that a pro-Taliban group today burned down a girl's school in a part of Swat known as Khawaza Khela. Islamic militants oppose giving girls education and have threatened to launch more attacks if Islamic law is not imposed in parts of the Northwest Frontier Province.
Just yesterday President Bush publicly praised Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani following a meeting in the Oval Office. But administration officials have recently warned the Pakistanis to step up their campaigns against the militants, and have even hinted that the U.S. would have to take a more hands-on role in northwest Pakistan if the government did not do a better job at confronting the militants.
Today Gilani met with presidential hopefuls Senator John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama. Obama has said in the past that the U.S. should have the right to attack militants inside Pakistan.