Civilians trapped as Swat battle intensifies

Some 200,000 civilians are trapped between Taliban and Pakistan government forces as a battle looms for control of Mingora, the capital of Pakistan's Swat valley.


AFP - A deadly battle is looming over the capital of Swat, where armed Taliban have mined roads and dug trenches around 200,000 trapped civilians encircled by Pakistani troops, residents and officials say.

Ground forces have so far avoided close urban combat since launching a renewed offensive to crush the Taliban menace, instead massing on the outskirts while militants mine exit and entry points, building up for a huge showdown.

Civilians stranded in town by an indefinite curfew narrated tales of horror in snatched telephone calls as communication with the outside world becomes increasingly perilous, and the Taliban and military exchange mortar fire.

"Mingora is a city of landmines, roadside bombs, trenches and masked Taliban armed with heavy weapons," said Zahir Shah -- not his real name in order to protect his identity -- now sheltering with relatives in Peshawar.

A government clerk, he fled Mingora with 12 members of his family this week after watching the Taliban dig in for the long haul, walking down from the mountains and taking up position on May 3, before a ceasefire collapsed.

"I saw groups and groups of Taliban armed with heavy weapons entering in the city. They entered our street and started digging trenches.

"They took position on the roofs of mosques, schools, hotels, anywhere they wanted. Nobody was there to stop them."

The military launched an offensive on April 26 after armed Taliban advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad from Swat, once a picturesque ski resort frequented by Westerners and now a hub of Islamist violence.

Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas estimated this week that 150,000-200,000 people were trapped in Mingora, but that the armed forces would lift the curfew for further evacuations before storming the city.

"We have surrounded Mingora and our strategy is to encircle the militants," said Abbas, despite implying the military had not firmed up its tactics.

The armed forces -- recognising that they enjoy public support but anxious that the onset of summer and increasing collateral damage will alienate the people -- have little idea how long a fight for Mingora would take.

"It is a complete war in Swat, the local administration is paralysed. These militants have been here a long time. They know the situation on the ground. We will do the utmost to complete this operation as soon as possible," said Abbas.

Following calls from rights groups to avoid civilian casualties, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has ordered his troops to ensure "minimum collateral damage even at the expense of taking risks, by resorting to precision strikes".

For now, many people are trapped in their homes, peering from behind the curtains at Taliban armed with rocket launchers and guns, who have beheaded opponents, bombed schools, and kidnapped and flogged people in their campaign to extend their control and impose sharia law.

"They're armed with heavy weapons. I can see them standing on the corner of the street," another resident from Mingora told AFP on telephone.

"I am sorry, I can't carry on talking as they are coming to my house," he said, turning off his phone.

A third local resident asked not to be contacted again because he said he was frightened that the Taliban would murder him for communicating with the outside world.

"They will cut my throat and say that I was spying," he said.

Analysts say any battle for Mingora has the potential to be a bloodbath unless civilians are properly evacuated, but vital for the armed forces to claim victory in Swat and return the district to government control.

Defence analyst and retired general Talat Masood said the military should sit tight, squeeze the city, cut supply lines, evacuate civilians and target the militants -- tactics he said the Russians employed in Chechnya.

"There is a possibility that militants may come down from the hills and occupy private houses or use civilians as human shields to carry on a guerrilla war," Masood told AFP.

"The military can stop their logistic support, cut the supply line, encircle militants and target them one by one.

"But there will be loss of life. You cannot avoid that. They should have the city vacated and then they can afford to bomb," he said.

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