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Army holds key parts of Mingora as battle for Swat valley continues

Latest update : 2009-05-25

Pakistani troops say they have retaken parts of Mingora, the Swat valley's main city, in a critical stage of their offensive against Taliban militants. Government sources say aircraft have pounded militant targets in the country's north-west.

AFP - Pakistan's military said Sunday it had seized several key areas in the Swat valley's Taliban-held main town, as their battle to regain control of the northwest entered a crucial phase.

Troops moved into Mingora on Saturday, fighting street-by-street with Islamist insurgents who last month flouted a ceasefire agreement and moved toward the capital Islamabad, sparking a fierce US-backed military retaliation.

By Sunday, officials said several important intersections and squares in Mingora were under their control, including the notorious Green Square where the Taliban reportedly carried out beheadings late last year.

Also Sunday, helicopter gunships and ground troops launched an attack in the nearby tribal area of Orakzai, killing eight militants as fears grew that the army offensive might mushroom into other northwestern districts.

The ground assault on Mingora, a city with an estimated population of about 300,000 -- many of whom have fled -- marks the most critical part of the military's offensive against the Taliban in the picturesque Swat valley.

The military said in a statement 10 militants had been killed in the last 24 hours, five of them in urban fighting in Mingora, and claimed to have wrested control of eight squares in the town from Taliban fighters.

Another military official told AFP soldiers remained locked in street battles in Mingora, where Taliban insurgents have in recent weeks been patrolling with guns and rocket launchers, according to terrified residents.

"Clashes are going on between security forces and militants in Nawa Kilay neighbourhood of Mingora and its western suburb of Qambar," he said.

Attempts to contact local residents by telephone were impossible with both mobile and landline networks down.

Although the military has bases inside Mingora, the town has been under effective Taliban control. As the administrative and business hub of the district, its capture is essential for the army to declare victory in Swat.

"Mingora is vital for both the Taliban and the troops. The Taliban have put in lot of assets there. They dug in there," said security analyst Ikram Sehgal.

"It is the capital of Swat and it has a psychological value. A victory there will be big boost for the security force."

Fears grow, however, for between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians that the military say are still trapped in Mingora, cowering behind closed doors with dwindling supplies of food and no access to medical care.

More than 1.7 million people have already fled the military assault, which began in Lower Dir district four weeks ago and has now gripped Buner and Swat.

Provincial officials on Sunday told AFP thousands of people fearing military action were also leaving North and South Waziristan, rugged frontier terrains on the border with Afghanistan and south of the current campaign.

The fresh exodus follows press reports last week in which President Asif Ali Zardari said that the government might consider an offensive in Waziristan.

In the restive Orakzai tribal area between Swat and Waziristan, a security official said militants launched an attack on an army convoy.

"Troops backed by attack helicopters retaliated, killing eight militants," the official said.

Security forces say 15,000 troops are now fighting 1,500 to 2,000 "hardcore militants" in Swat, where the government last month ordered a push to eradicate fighters who thrust to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.

The extremists' advance came despite a February deal with a pro-Taliban cleric which put three million people in the northwest under sharia law in a bid to end the two-year Taliban insurgency -- a deal which now lies in tatters.

Washington had baulked at the February sharia deal but Islamabad's fresh assault has the full backing of the United States, which has identified Pakistan and Afghanistan as central to its battle with Islamist extremism.

The military says more than 1,100 militants and 66 soldiers have died in the onslaught launched in the districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8, but those tolls cannot be confirmed independently.

Date created : 2009-05-24