Pakistani war planes, helicopters and ground troops launched a fierce assault on militants in the Swat Valley yesterday, a day after the prime minister gave orders to "eliminate" Taliban in the area. About 140 militants were killed during 24 hours of fighting, said Major Gen Athar Abbas, Pakistan's top military spokesman.
The army has vowed to fight until the end to finish off the Taliban insurgents. "The army is now engaged in a full-scale operation to eliminate miscreants," Major Gen Abbas said. In addition to aerial assaults on Taliban hideouts, there were also bloody clashes as army troops fought militants that had seized government buildings in Swat and the neighbouring districts of Buner and Dir. Helicopter gunships, fighter jets, tanks and artillery were mobilised. There were 4,000 to 5,000 militants in the valley while up to 15,000 members of the security forces were involved, Major Gen Abbas said.
Aid agencies raised concerns about the growing humanitarian crisis. More than 500,000 people have been forced to flee fighting to safer areas of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province over the past few days, bringing the total number of displaced since August to one million, according to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most are living in squalid camp sites where food and water are scarce.
Unicef raised particular concerns about children in the area who have witnessed violence, been forced from their homes, or who are unable to go to school or get medical care. Yesterday's intensified fighting followed air assaults on Thursday. Roads out of the valley are jammed amid the "massive displacement", the agency said. "Mingora is totally under Taliban control. They are roaming the streets with mortars and kalashnikovs. There are no security forces in sight anywhere," said Zubair Ahmed, a teacher escaping on foot from Mingora with eight members of his family.
Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, has appealed for international aid to help deal with the crisis. Previous conflicts in Swat have been criticised for the number of civilians who have been caught in the crossfire, and although this time authorities are encouraging civilians to leave the area, government-imposed curfews are making that difficult. Militants are also trying to prevent people from leaving the war zone, Major Gen Abbas said.
"They are on the run and trying to block the exodus of civilians from the area," he said. Pakistan has been under pressure from the West to deal with Taliban fighters, particularly from the US, for whom clamping down on militants is a key strategy to quell escalating violence in neighbouring Afghanistan. The assault coincides with a visit by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to Washington, where he has assured his US counterpart, Barack Obama, of Islamabad's commitment to defeating al Qa'eda and its allies. Washington had accused Islamabad of "abdicating" to the Taliban.
In a televised address late on Thursday, the prime minister called on the armed forces "to eliminate the militants and terrorists" to restore the "honour and dignity of our homeland". The fighting ends a peace deal in which the government agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat in return for peace with militants after two years of fighting. The agreement was fiercely criticised by the US administration, who said that it would embolden the Taliban to spread their influence further.
That view was vindicated when the Taliban moved into the Buner district, just 96km away from the capital of the nuclear-armed state, a step that was met with alarm in both Islamabad and the West. The army claims to have killed more than 200 militants in Dir and Buner provinces in the past two weeks. "The expansion of the area of control outside Swat was not acceptable for anyone," said Dr Mustafa Alani, a defence analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai.
"There's been huge pressure on the government from the Americans to take action." Dr Alani questioned whether the current offensive by Pakistan forces could succeed, saying that a longer-term political strategy was needed to address the militants who aim to spread their influence across Pakistan. "I don't see this movement as being able to be crushed by military and security measures alone," he said.
"There is popular support for the Pakistani Taliban and US intervention isn't helping that. Even if they regain control temporarily, once control is relaxed they will be back again." firstname.lastname@example.org * with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse