Pakistani troops enter Taliban town in Swat, 25 militants killed (Second Lead)

May 17th, 2009 - 8:23 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 17 (DPA) Pakistani soldiers moved into a key Taliban-dominated town in the Swat valley Sunday, the military said, intensifying the offensive that had displaced over one million people.
Ground troops entered the strategically important town of Matta and the nearby Kanju area to eliminate “miscreants and terrorists”, and asked locals to identify the Taliban targets.

The onslaught’s “new phase” marking the commencement of urban warfare came more than a week after the military formally announced “a full-scale operation” in the former tourist hub of Swat, some 140 km northwest of the capital Islamabad.

“Security forces with the help of local population will not only clear, secure and hold the area, but will make sure that miscreants, terrorists are chased and killed to avert any possibility of their return,” the military said in a statement Sunday.

Matta is located about 20 km from Swat’s main town of Mingora, the outskirts of which was also the scene of “intense fire engagements” between militants and troops, who seemed close to entering the town to confront pockets of resistance.

Twenty-five Taliban fighters and an army officer were killed during the last 24 hours, the military said.

Consolidated military figures take the casualty count to more than 1,000 militants and 49 soldiers killed in the offensive, which informally started late April in Swat’s adjoining districts of Lower Dir and Buner.

There is no independent confirmation of the figures.

The operation was launched as the US accused Pakistan of “abdicating” to the Taliban by signing a controversial peace deal, under which the militants promised to give up arms in return for the introduction of Islamic law or sharia in the region.

The agreement crumbled as the emboldened militants expanded the territory under their control and came to within 100 km of Islamabad.

Advances by Taliban fighters triggered a consensus that a decisive action was inevitable against the “existential threat”.

Ensuing clashes sparked a mass exodus, with hundreds of thousands of residents fleeing the escalating violence during breaks in a curfew imposed in the region.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres Saturday said the agency had registered more than 1.17 million displaced people since May 2, in addition to the nearly 550,000 others who fled fighting in the northwest region last year.

Taliban fighters were also reportedly trying to flee the combat zone disguised as locals after shaving off beards and cutting their hair.

The military offensive in Swat, Buner, Lower Dir and the district of Shangla has strong backing from political parties and the public, but that could change if the number of civilian deaths rises or if refugees were not duly cared for.

Although the military has denied causing civilian casualties, scores are believed to have died in the crossfire, or in explosions caused by roadside bombs planted by the rebels.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said last week that “it will be very unfortunate if we win militarily but lose publicly”, as he stressed “winning the hearts and minds” of the uprooted people.

The UN refugee agency chief Saturday sought urgent international support for the displaced, saying, “This is not the moment for symbolic gestures”.

Brawls have reportedly taken place in the makeshift camps set up for the thousands of refugees over food and relief items.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik Sunday visited one of the camps and asked those people to return home whose areas had been secured by the government forces.

Malik said anti-Pakistan elements wanted to destabilise the nuclear-armed country and for this they had used the Taliban.

“The offensive would continue until the last Taliban militant is flushed out,” he added.

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