Pakistan hits Taliban amid Swat valley exodus (Second Lead)

May 7th, 2009 - 5:09 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 7 (DPA) Pakistani jets strafed militant positions in the troubled Swat district Thursday as civilians struggled to flee the escalating conflict, officials and locals said.
The fresh fighting came as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that the humanitarian crisis was intensifying in the north-west region.

Jet aircraft targeted Taliban fighters in the Khwazakhela area, about 25 km north of the district’s main town, Mingora, a security official said on the condition of anonymity.

The bombing raids were followed by rocket attacks by military helicopter gunships, which hit the rebels in the Korai, Jablus Siraj and Malam Jabba areas, the official said.

“Ground troops are also advancing toward these militant strongholds but facing resistance from insurgents holding positions on the hills,” the official added.

No casualty figures were given, but according to the official, “the toll ran high”.

Authorities lifted a curfew in Mingora at 7 a.m. (0100 GMT) for five hours and later extended it to 6 p.m. (1200 GMT). However, there were no announcements of evacuations.

Crowds of people, nevertheless, left their homes to try to exit the town for safer areas but confronted a shortage of transport as heavily armed Taliban militants blocked roads and patrolled the streets.

“People are fearful that they will be caught in the crossfire as the military seems to be preparing to step up its push in the town,” an administration official said.

“The insurgents have warned the population against fleeing Mingora… amid looming threats of full-scale war,” the official added.

The Red Cross said Thursday that the humanitarian crisis was intensifying in the region, where an estimated half-million people were displaced.

“We can no longer reach the areas most affected by the fighting on account of the volatile situation,” said Benno Kocher, the head of the Red Cross operations in the North-West Frontier Province, where Swat is located.

The Red Cross called upon the parties in the conflict to comply with international humanitarian law and take all “feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties”.

Fighting has flared up in the Malakand division, which includes Swat, in recent days after the virtual collapse of a three-month-old peace deal between the Taliban fighters and the regional government.

Islamist militants attacked a base of pro-government militia in Swat’s neighbouring district of Lower Dir Wednesday, triggering a gunfight that killed at least three militiamen.

Scores of rebels raided the base of the tribal police in the Chakdara area and took more than a dozen militiamen hostage, a local police official said.

Security forces launched a rescue effort, and three militiamen were killed in the ensuing gunbattle with the attackers, the private Geo News television channel reported.

It was not clear whether the insurgents suffered any casualties.

The militants also blew up the checkpoint before retreating with the hostages.

In another clash in the Maidan area of Lower Dir, a son of the pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammad, who brokered the February peace accord that led to the introduction of Islamic sharia law in Malakand in mid-April, was killed, Geo said.

Under the agreement, Taliban militants said they would disarm after the imposition of sharia law, but they did not honour their promises and expanded their territory to nearby districts.

Their forays prompted the government to launch air and ground operations against the Taliban, who have their bastion in the Swat Valley, a former tourist destination.

The Pakistani military claimed troops have killed more than 300 militants since April 26 when the anti-Taliban offensives began from Lower Dir.

The fresh clashes came as US President Barack Obama discussed the surge in the Taliban insurgency with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts in Washington and stressed a coordinated effort was needed.

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