Pakistani leaders denied rumors that martial law was imposed overnight, as intense fighting between Islamic militants and government troops in the northwest threatened to further undermine Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf's authority.
The military ruler -- already upstaged by the recent return of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto following eight years in exile -- responded to growing instability in the volatile mountainous region with an iron fist on Thursday.
Security forces pounded pro-Taliban militants with helicopter gunships, mortars and assault rifles, killing up to 70, the military said.
The clashes and a string of suicide bombings have rocked Pakistan in recent weeks, deepening unease ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on the validity of Musharraf's Oct. 6 presidential victory.
There are fears Musharraf could impose a state of emergency or martial law if the judges rule against another five-year term, jeopardizing the country's transition to civilian rule and perhaps worsening instability as the government confronts Islamic militants.
Bhutto, who flew to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, reportedly for a weeklong visit with family, abruptly changed her travel plans several times over such fears. She narrowly escaped assassination in a suicide bombing when she returned to the country Oct. 18 to lead her party in parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, rumors that the government had quietly imposed martial law swept the capital overnight and were quickly and firmly denied by the government.
"At the moment ... last night, this morning, has there been a decision to impose emergency? I say no," Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem.
Musharraf is under pressure from Washington to crack down on pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters hiding near the Afghan border.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- when asked if she or US President George W. Bush had directly advised Musharraf not to declare martial law -- said she would not speculate on developments in Pakistan or divulge details of their conversations.
"I think it would be quite obvious that the United States wouldn't be supportive of extraconstitutional means," Rice told reporters in Ireland as she began a diplomatic mission to Turkey and the Middle East.
Violence in the Swat district, where a militant cleric is trying to enforce Taliban-style rule, underlines the expansion of Islamist movements in northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border that is challenging Musharraf's control.
Government officials say militants account for most of 180 people killed in fighting around Swat since 2,500 militiamen from the region's paramilitary Frontier Constabulary deployed last week to tackle the followers of cleric Maulana Fazlullah.
In fighting on Thursday, militants attacked police posts, and security forces responded with fire from mortars, assault rifles and helicopter gunships.
The mountainous region is about 130km northwest of the capital, Islamabad.
"According to the information I have ... between 60 to 70 miscreants were killed in Swat's areas of Khawaza Khela today," said the army spokesman, Major General Waheed Arshad.
Fazlullah, in a message broadcast on his FM radio station yesterday morning, claimed only eight of his fighters died.