Pakistani army moves in to retake Swat town held by Taliban

May 18th, 2009 - 2:41 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 18 (DPA) Pakistani troops were fighting street by street Monday to gain control of a key Taliban bastion in the Swat valley, where an intense onslaught has uprooted more than a million civilians.
Security forces advanced into the towns on Matta and Kanju on the weekend as the military announced that its operation entered “a new phase”, with appeals for a public uprising against the militants.

Matta, located about 20 km from Swat’s main town Mingora, has been a stronghold of Taliban fighters since 2007, when hardline cleric Maulana Fazullah began a violent campaign to enforce strict, self-defined Islamic principles.

Soldiers swooped on rebel positions in Matta as attack helicopters joined the assault Monday. The town was largely abandoned by its remaining residents during a weekend break in a curfew.

The military is believed to have retaken half of the town while suffering two fatalities in intense gunfights that also killed at least 15 militants, Geo News television channel reported while citing local military commander Brigadier Jamal.

Jet aircraft and helicopter gunships also pounded targets in Peuchar, a side valley where the militants had their headquarters and training camps. Fighting was also continuing on the outskirts of Mingora.

The escalating bouts came as Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani chaired a meeting of mainstream political leaders in Islamabad to discuss the security situation in Swat and its adjoining districts.

“Operation against the terrorists is proceeding very successfully,” Gilani told the meeting dubbed the all-parties conference. “Those who destroyed peace are now fleeing.”

He stressed use of military means was not “an enduring solution” but said the action was crucial because “the people of Swat had been taken hostage at gunpoint”.

Gilani ordered the security forces “to eliminate” the Taliban fighters in the scenic valley May 7, days after a fragile peace agreement collapsed as militants expanded their influence to the north-western Buner district, just 100 km from Islamabad.

Between 12,000 and 15,000 troops are taking on around 4,000 Taliban insurgents, including Al Qaeda-linked fighters, in Swat and its neighbouring districts of Buner, Lower Dir and Shangla.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Sunday more than 1,000 militants had been killed in the fighting which began from Lower Dir late April. Nearly 50 soldiers have also died.

The “full-scale operation” sparked a mass exodus, with the UN refugee agency registering more than 1.17 million displaced people since May 2. But the numbers run even higher as thousands are believed to have avoided registration.

They are joining another 555,000 who fled insurgency in the north-west last year.

Officials and commentators fear the widespread political and public support for the offensive could fade away in case of high collateral damage and inadequate care for the refugees.

The military says no civilian deaths have been caused in its assaults, but accuses the rebels of hitting non-combatants with roadside bombs and gun and mortar fire. The claim cannot be independently confirmed.

Aid agencies have given calls for urgent and massive international support for the victims of displacement, which is being described as the largest since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947.

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