The Pakistani military says it now controls more than half of Mingora, Swat valley's main town and its regional capital. Fierce street battles continue to rage as an army offensive against Taliban militants enters a fifth week.
AFP - Pakistani troops fought street battles Tuesday, struggling for control of Swat valley's capital as fears grew of a looming catastrophe for people trapped by the anti-Taliban offensive.
As the punishing assault against the Islamist insurgents entered a fifth week, the military said troops had secured 50 percent of Mingora, the capital of the scenic northwest Swat valley and a crucial tactical battleground.
Nearly 2.4 million people have fled as Islamabad struggles to wrest back Swat and nearby districts from the Taliban, whose two-year insurgency has torn apart an area once popular with tourists for its peaks and pristine ski slopes.
Now, the mountain villages and valley towns have been transformed into a war zone, with tens of thousands of civilians trapped with scant food and water.
"More than half of Mingora is under the army's control. We have plugged all escape routes for militants," military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a press conference, saying pockets of "hardcore militants" remained.
"Street-by-street fighting is going on and forces still face resistance... most of the city's intersections and squares are in the army's control, but as troops are advancing we have reports of resistance."
Security officials had earlier said 70 percent of Mingora was under the military's control.
Taliban extremists bent on imposing a harsh brand of Islamic law had for the past weeks patrolled the streets armed with guns and rocket launchers but a Mingora resident said now their bodies littered the roadside.
"Taliban were seen patrolling in my area until four days ago but now army troops are moving here in a big number," said Ahmadullah, who gave one name only and owns a pharmacy in Mingora's Malukabad neighbourhood.
"There are at least three bodies of Taliban lying in my locality. I identified them because near them lie their dusty turbans and weapons," he told AFP by telephone.
Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar told AFP from an undisclosed location Tuesday that insurgents were withdrawing from Mingora "to avert civilian casualties".
The military said in a statement that they had killed 29 suspected militants in the last 24 hours in Swat valley -- including 18 insurgents in Mingora -- while six soldiers died in combat.
The statement said 90 percent of Buner district had been cleared of militants, while fighting continued in Lower Dir.
Security officials also reported that at least three insurgents were killed in a military strike in South Waziristan, a rugged tribal area south of the current conflict zone and a known hideout for Taliban-linked fighters.
Abbas would not confirm any military action in the area but Omar warned the government against launching a fresh operation.
"If they launch a military operation in South Waziristan region, we will create problems for the government, not only in tribal areas but also at other places in North West Frontier Province," he said.
Security forces launched their onslaught in the districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8, after Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.
The UN refugee agency says 2.38 million people have been registered as displaced since May 2, in what UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said was one of the "fastest major displacements" in recent years.
Fears also grew for the tens of thousands unable to escape.
"People trapped in the Swat conflict zone face a humanitarian catastrophe unless the Pakistani military immediately lifts a curfew," said Brad Adams, director of New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch.
"The government cannot allow the local population to remain trapped without food, clean water and medicine as a tactic to defeat the Taliban."
The military says nearly 1,190 militants and 75 soldiers have died in the current offensive but those tolls cannot be confirmed independently.
Elsewhere in the troubled North West Frontier Province on Tuesday, two policemen were wounded in a roadside bomb in Tank district, near Waziristan.
Date created : 2009-05-26