Pakistan troops gain ground in Swat’s main city (Lead)

May 24th, 2009 - 8:29 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 24 (DPA) Pakistani troops gained a foothold in Swat’s main city Sunday as they pushed on with their offensive to rout Taliban militants from the Swat Valley.
“Moving from street to street, security forces have secured important areas of Mingora city,” the military said in a statement.

The retaken spots included the key Green Chowk, which earned the name of “Bloody Intersection” for being the site of public beheadings and hangings by the Taliban.

The house-to-house battle to recapture Mingora is being described as “the most important phase” of the onslaught against the Taliban in the one-time tourists’ haven located 140 km northwest of the capital, Islamabad.

Ten militants and three soldiers were killed in clashes in Swat over the past 24 hours, the military said. Another six security personnel were wounded.

“Five miscreants-terrorists were killed in various areas of Mingora city while 14 miscreants have been arrested by the security forces,” according to the statement.

Infantry troops involved in the street fighting also encountered at least a dozen homemade bombs, four of which were defused. It was not clear whether the remaining explosive devices inflicted any casualties on the ground units.

Security forces entered Mingora Saturday, sparking fierce exchange of fire in the town where up to 20,000 residents are still believed to be pinned down in their homes.

The military said Saturday that capture of the town would be “painfully slow” as soldiers had been told to avoid collateral damage.

Elsewhere, security forces stormed the Peochar village, one of the most important militant strongholds, at the weekend and discovered huge caches of arms and an extensive bomb-making facility.

The statement said Sunday that a “swift operation” in the nearby former ski resort of Malam Jabba left five militants dead.

When the military announced a full-scale offensive in Swat May 8, it put the number of Taliban militants between 4,000 and 5,000.

But chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told reporters Saturday that the security forces were now fighting an estimated 2,000 hardcore Taliban. He said a large number of petty criminals who had joined the militants had left the militia and escaped from the region.

More than 1,100 militants and over 60 soldiers have so far been reported killed in the offensive which was launched after the Taliban violated a peace deal and expanded their influence to Swat’s adjoining district of Buner, just 100 km from Islamabad.

The casualty count could not be confirmed independently.

Escalating violence in the northwest has also displaced around two million people since August 2008, with nearly 1.7 million fleeing the fighting in the last three weeks.

The UN Friday launched an appeal for an additional $454 million in aid to assist the uprooted people.

Separately, Pakistani attack aircraft pounded militant positions in the Orakzai tribal district near Afghanistan Sunday, killing at least 13 Taliban fighters, the Urdu-language Geo News television channel reported.

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