Pakistan Army approaching urban warfare in Swat (Lead)

May 17th, 2009 - 3:07 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 17 (DPA) Ground troops made advances towards Taliban-held towns in Pakistan’s Swat valley Sunday, as aid agencies renewed calls for “massive support” to help out more than one million refugees.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the agency had registered more than 1.17 million displaced persons since May 2. They are in addition to nearly 550,000 others who fled fighting in the northwest region last year.

Security forces backed by artillery, attack helicopters and jet aircraft announced “a full-scale operation” last week to eliminate up to 5,000 Taliban fighters deeply entrenched in both wooded hamlets and populous towns of Swat, 140 km from Islamabad.

The army claims to have killed more than 950 rebels while losing only 48 soldiers. Those figures could not be verified independently.

On Sunday, army troops were closing in on Mingora, the main town of Swat district, where thousands of civilians were still stranded under curfew, a security official said on condition of anonymity.

In nearby Matta town, however, curfew was lifted for a few hours to allow residents to evacuate the troubled area as battles in the streets between soldiers and the militants seemed imminent.

The security forces said they have so far restrained from urban warfare to avoid collateral damage. Although the military has denied causing civilian casualties, scores are believed to have died in crossfire, or by roadside bombs planted by the rebels.

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

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

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.

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