Pakistani troops destroy Taliban headquarters, kill 55 militants (Lead)

May 9th, 2009 - 8:17 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 9 (DPA) Pakistani troops Saturday destroyed the headquarters of the Taliban in the restive Swat valley and killed some 55 militants, as a humanitarian crisis intensified with thousands of civilians stranded in the battlefield.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimated up to 200,000 people fled the former tourist haven in recent days, and forecast further exodus of nearly 300,000 more.

Security forces targeted the Taliban headquarters in the Loenamal area of the mountainous Matta sub-district, completely destroying it, the army claimed in a statement. The action there and in eight neighbouring areas left 30 to 40 militants dead.

Separately, helicopter gunships pounded militant positions in Swat’s main town of Mingora, to soften Taliban resistance as troops pushed forward with the ground operation, killing 15 rebels.

“Militants were harassing the civil population and were intensely involved in various activities of looting and arson in Mingora,” a statement from the Pakistani army said.

The Pakistani military announced “a full-scale operation” Friday, the day after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called for national unity as the troops were ordered “to eliminate the terrorists”.

The US welcomed the military action amid concerns about dwindling stability in the nuclear-armed state, which it considers central to counter-insurgency efforts in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Clashes were also reported in the adjoining district of Buner and Shangla. The army claimed militants suffered “heavy casualties”, without giving any details. Two soldiers were also injured.

More than 140 Taliban fighters were reported killed on the first day of the all-out offensive, with the troops also suffering at least seven casualties. The toll could not be verified independently.

Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told reporters that troops were battling up to 5,000 Taliban militants in the scenic valley, located 140 km northwest of the capital Islamabad.

The statement from his office said Saturday the “indiscriminate mortar firing” by the militants in the populated areas of Mingora, resulted in civilian casualties.

“Militants are using houses of civilians as bunkers for engaging the Security Forces,” it said further.

An indefinite curfew remained in place in the insurgency-hit areas of Swat, with the authorities saying that the relaxation timings could not be disclosed in advance because militants were thought to be attacking non-combatants leaving the valley.

Those taking chances also faced the threat of being caught in crossfire or hit by roadside bombs planted by the insurgents.

Commentators say there is a wide consensus, at least for now, that the government needs to go all-out against the Taliban, but warn that the situation could change in case of heavy collateral damage or poor treatment of refugees.

Pakistani authorities have set up nearly a dozen camps with support from international and local relief agencies. However, UN refugee agency spokesman in Geneva, Ron Redmond, said the new influx would place “huge additional pressure on resources”.

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