x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Swat campaign undeterred by city attacks

Pakistani forces clear a Taliban stronghold in Swat and drive militants out of a town in the north-west valley.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistani forces cleared a Taliban stronghold in Swat and drove militants out of a town in the north-west valley, the military said on Friday. The news comes amid worries over how long it would be before more than 2 million displaced people can go home. Beaten back by the army in Swat, the militants have retaliated with bomb and gun attacks in Pakistani cities in the last couple of days. Western allies, worried that the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons could be compromised by the Taliban threat, have been heartened by the government's decision to unleash the army late last month.

The offensive has sparked an exodus of about 2 million people, according to the provincial government, and the country faces a long-term humanitarian crisis that could eventually undermine public support for the fight against the Taliban. Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told state-run television that more than 1,200 militants had been killed and 42 captured since the conflict broke out after the militants moved south from Swat into Buner, a valley just 100 kilometres from Islamabad.

Gen Abbas said 90 soldiers had been killed and 60 wounded. There were no independent casualty estimates available. Gen Abbas foresaw the militants breaking cover as they ran out of ammunition and supplies. "Once it's done completely then we'll be able to overpower them, as they'll be strapped of ammunition and they'll come up," he said. In a bid to take the heat off retreating comrades in Swat, militants have carried out eight bomb attacks in towns and cities since late April, three on Thursday in the north-west, a day after 24 people were killed in a suicide gun and bomb attack in the eastern city of Lahore.

The military had sealed off most routes into Swat, choking off supplies and reinforcements for the militants, and the offensive had already targeted the militant's logistics bases. Gen Abbas said militants were fleeing northward through the mountains into Kalam valley, where troops were being positioned to meet them. During the past 24 hours a cordon-and-search operation had finally cleared Peochar village of militants, according to a military statement. Helicopters had dropped commandos into Peochar more than two weeks ago.

Lying in a forested alpine valley, Peochar was one of the main bases for various militant groups that had used Swat as a halfway base between Pakistan's borders with eastern Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir. The search operation destroyed militant hideouts, including a madrasa, or religious school, and recovered 12 stolen United Nations' vehicles. Troops also uncovered a network of tunnels and found "a huge arms cache including 12.7mm guns".

The military statement also said troops had secured Bahrain town, in upper Swat, and killed nine militants, including their commander. The army says troops have almost secured Mingora, the main town in Swat with a population of 300,000 before most of the inhabitants fled. There were still clashes as troops searched buildings in and around Mingora. Militants ambushed a convoy ferrying rations to people who had stayed behind, and four soldiers were killed.

In Daggar, the main town in Buner, which was retaken more than a month ago, troops killed 13 militants holed up in a compound. *Reuters