Army claims control of main Swat valley town from Taliban

Pakistani security forces claim they have regained control of the Swat valley's main town of Mingora from the Taliban after a week-long offensive, military spokesperson Major-General Athar Abbas said.


AFP - Pakistan's military said Saturday troops had regained control of the main town in a key northwestern district from the Taliban in what would be a significant milestone in a month-long offensive.

The announcement came three days after the military vowed to wipe out the Taliban from Mingora, the administrative and commercial hub of the mountainous Swat valley, a region that has been torn apart by a two-year Taliban uprising.

"Mingora is cleared and secured," chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP.

"Security forces control the city. The Mingora fight is finished," he said.

It is impossible to confirm independently information released by the army because the conflict area is a closed military zone.

Abbas said Mingora was cleared Saturday, but emphasised the battle was far from over in the valley, where government forces are locked in a fight against Taliban guerrillas as well as in two other neighbouring districts.

"We're only talking about Mingora. Much more fight in Swat is left," the military spokesman told AFP. But without laying claim to Mingora, the largest town in the district, the military would be unable to claim victory in Swat.

Taliban extremists determined to enforce their harsh brand of Islamic law had for weeks patrolled the streets of the town, but a Taliban spokesman said recently that fighters were withdrawing to prevent civilian deaths.

Cushioned in the hills, 160 kilometres (100 miles) northwest of Pakistan's national capital Islamabad, the city once bustled with activity, filled with local merchants and tourists who came to relax in the scenic mountains.

Residents trapped in Mingora by the fighting told AFP this week there was no electricity, food and water were scarce and that gunfire reverberated through the sand-bagged streets.

The military says around 15,000 soldiers are fighting up to 2,000 militants in the third offensive against the Taliban in Swat in less than two years.

The fresh air and ground assault was unleashed under US pressure after armed Taliban advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad in April, sparking US warnings that they posed a threat to the existence of the country.

UN officials say about 2.4 million have people fled the fighting, in what human rights groups have called the largest internal displacement in Pakistan since partition from India in 1947.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Saturday his government had embarked on a comprehensive policy for their relief and rehabilitation.

"We will take full care of displaced people, who have sacrificed for our future," Gilani said while addressing a ceremony in Islamabad.

"We will not allow a handful of people to destabilise the country and derail democracy," he said in reference to Taliban militants.

Pakistan has called for one billion dollars to help the uprooted civilians rebuild their lives. Observers say it will cost the cash-strapped country far more in reconstruction and filling the vacuum after military operations.

The military says more than 1,200 militants and around 90 soldiers have been killed since the air and ground assault began on April 26.

Pakistan has slapped a 600,000-dollar price on the head of a firebrand Swat Taliban commander Maulan Fazlullah, wanted dead or alive, for masterminding a nearly two-year uprising in the valley to enforce sharia law.

Fazlullah led thousands of supporters, a mixture of hardcore ideologues and disenfranchised young men, in a brutal campaign that beheaded opponents, burned scores of schools and fought against government troops since November 2007.

In northern Swat, government forces dropped leaflets by helicopter, warning residents in the town of Charbagh to evacuate ahead of a possible attack, military officials told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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