Pakistani military officials are fighting Taliban militants for control of Swat's main town of Mingora, which has been under the Islamists' control for weeks. Many of the city's estimated 300,000 residents have fled the army's ground assault.
AFP - Pakistani troops stormed into the main town in the Swat valley and fought street battles Saturday in a bid to capture the capital of the northwest district from Taliban control, the military said.
Chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said parts of Mingora had already been cleared and that 17 militants, including an important commander, were killed during the most recent fighting of Pakistan's northwest offensive.
The ground assault on Mingora, a city with an estimated population of around 300,000 -- of whom many have fled -- marks the most crucial part of the military's blistering offensive against the Taliban in the scenic valley.
Mingora has effectively been under Taliban control for weeks and -- as the administrative and business hub of the entire district -- its capture is essential for the military to be able to declare ultimate victory in Swat.
Pakistan says up to 15,000 troops are taking on 4,000 well-armed fighters in Swat, where Islamabad has ordered a battle to eradicate fighters who advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the national capital.
"Today the most important phase of operation Rah-e-Rast, the clearance of Mingora, has commenced," the military said in a statement on its website.
"In the last 24 hours, security forces have entered Mingora; 17 miscreants-terrorists, including important miscreant commander were killed," added the statement, written in English.
The military reported intense exchanges of fire and said one would-be suicide bomber was shot dead and that another "suicide vehicle" rigged with explosives had been destroyed.
Pakistani troops had been slowly tightening their encirclement of the city for days and Abbas said Saturday that militant supplies had been cut off.
"Mingora was surrounded from four directions and militant supplies were cut off," Abbas told a news conference.
On Friday, he told reporters in Swat, a stunning mountainous district once popular with tourists but ripped apart by a two-year Taliban insurgency, that only five to 10 percent of Mingora's population of 300,000 remained in town.
Pakistan has said Islamist extremists based in Swat threaten the sovereignty of the nuclear-armed nation, hailing operations launched also in two neighbouring districts as a mission to "eliminate" militants.
Islamabad has the full backing of the United States, which has identified Pakistan and Afghanistan as central to its "war on terror".
The prospect of an assault on Mingora, which has loomed for days, has raised fears of a bloody battle and the possibility of civilian casualties.
US-based Human Rights Watch earlier this week quoted residents as saying the Taliban had mined Mingora and "prevented many civilians from fleeing, using them as 'human shields' to deter attack".
The group also said Pakistani forces "appeared to have taken insufficient precautionary measures in aerial and artillery attacks that have caused a high loss of civilian life".
Pakistani commanding officers have stressed that soldiers are under top-level orders to avoid collateral damage and not to use either artillery or air strikes in built-up areas.
Date created : 2009-05-24