Pakistan Army pushes deeper into Taliban-held towns (Lead)

May 19th, 2009 - 7:39 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 19 (DPA) Pakistani soldiers pushed deeper into built-up areas in the Taliban bastion of Swat Tuesday, as the number of displaced civilians from the war zones swelled to over two million.
Infantry units battled the militants in the towns of Matta and Kanju in the one-time tourist valley, some 140 km northwest of the capital city, Islamabad.

Troops also consolidated their positions in Peuchar, a side valley that served as a key Taliban stronghold and hosted several training facilities for militant recruits.

“In the last 24 hours, 16 miscreant-terrorists were killed, whereas an (army) officer and three soldiers embraced shahadat (martyrdom),” the military said in a statement. Another 16 soldiers, including an officer, were reported wounded.

Fierce clashes took place near Swat’s main town of Mingora, where security forces are closing in to begin street battles against the entrenched rebels.

The majority of Mingora residents have fled the town during periodic curfew breaks in recent days, but thousands are still believed to be stuck in homes.

Pakistani security forces launched a full-scale operation against the Taliban fighters in Swat May 8, but bloody clashes began even earlier in late April in the adjoining district of Lower Dir and Buner, which the militants infiltrated in violation of a peace pact.

Official figures place the casualty count at more than 1,000 militants killed, but there was no independent verification of the toll. At least 55 security personnel have also died.

The recent fighting triggered a mass exodus which Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani termed the largest since 1947 when the country gained independence from Britain.

The UN refugee agency said Monday that more than 1.45 million people had abandoned their homes just this month and joined another 550,000 who had been registered since last August.

Rival politicians largely threw their weight behind the anti-insurgency campaign in Swat at a cross-party conference chaired by Gilani in Islamabad Monday.

But analysts fear the broad political and public support for the offensive might sway if the humanitarian crisis worsened.

A New York-based rights group said Monday residents were running “unnecessary risk” because the militants were using them as human shields and the military had apparently taken “insufficient measures” to contain collateral damage.

“The Taliban’s use of landmines and human shields is a sorry addition to their long list of abuses in the Swat valley,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

“They urgently need to let civilians leave areas of fighting,” Adams said, adding the Taliban were preventing non-combatants from fleeing the embattled valley.

Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed, who heads a special group looking after the refugees, told reporters in Peshawar Tuesday that operations at 22 makeshift camps for the displaced people were being streamlined.

Ahmed said relief supplies were pouring in and authorities were now focusing on anti-diarrhoeal and anti-heatstroke services in shelters as people coming down from the northwestern mountain areas are not accustomed to the searing heat experienced down south.

Food supplies were also being sent to conflict-ridden areas for the stranded civilians, he added.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres last week said leaving the displaced people without the support they need “could constitute an enormous destabilising factor”.

Separately, Pakistani security forces killed at least 13 militants in a gunfight in the Mohmand tribal district near the Afghan border, the Urdu-language Aaj television channel reported. Five foreign militants, including three Arabs, were arrested.

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