By Lehaz Ali (AFP) – May 31, 2009
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — Pakistan's defence secretary said Sunday that a month-long offensive to crush Taliban fighters in the northwest could end within days, as security forces hunted down the militant leadership.
Swat valley's main town Mingora is back in government hands, the military announced late Saturday, and Syed Athar Ali told a security forum in Singapore that three targeted northwest districts were almost clear of Taliban rebels.
"Operations in Swat, Buner and adjoining areas have almost met complete success," the secretary of defence said.
"Only five to ten percent job is remaining and hopefully within the next two to three days these pockets of resistance will be cleared."
The army remains locked in battle in some areas, but the fall of Mingora was a critical milestone in an offensive launched after the Taliban thrust to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.
Washington, which is firmly backing the military drive, had warned that the rebels threatened Pakistan's very existence and identified the country and neighbouring Afghanistan as central to its 'war on terror'.
"We are trying to target the top leadership of militants and they are constantly being followed," chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said as he announced the Mingora win.
Officials said lower-ranking leaders had been killed but it was harder to get to the top leaders, who had a network of hardcore militants around them and had slipped into the rugged mountain terrain.
"They will be eliminated wherever we find them," said one military official, who did not wish to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, adding: "We believe that they are somewhere in the mountains."
Pakistan has slapped a 600,000-dollar price on the head of firebrand Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah for masterminding the nearly two-year uprising in Swat valley to enforce sharia law.
The insurgency has transformed a scenic region once popular with Western tourists for its soaring peaks, pristine ski slopes and cool mountain air into a battle ground, with armed Taliban in April patrolling the streets of Mingora.
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.
The government has also offered rewards for 21 rebel chiefs -- wanted dead or alive -- from Swat and has listed their names and published mugshots.
But as the government ups its campaign to stamp out the militants, fears are growing of a wave of revenge attacks on cities across Pakistan.
The northwestern capital Peshawar and the eastern cultural centre of Lahore have both been rocked by deadly explosions in the last five days, killing a total of 39 people and wounding hundreds more.
A spokesman for Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud -- who has a five-million-dollar bounty on his head posted by the United States -- has claimed the suicide attack Wednesday on a police building in Lahore.
Hakimullah Mehsud also warned of more "massive attacks" on government buildings to revenge the Swat military operation and in protest at Islamabad's ties with Washington.
Baitullah Mehsud commands Tehreek-e-Taliban from the lawless tribal area of Waziristan on the Afghan border, where militants branded by Washington as the greatest terror threat to the West are holed up.
In South Waziristan on Sunday, military officials said that at least 28 suspected insurgents and one soldier were killed in fierce clashes.
Nearly 2.4 million people have fled the current offensive in the northwest and now huddle in refugee camps or with relatives.
The military said it had relaxed its strict curfew Sunday in most parts of the northwest including Mingora to allow people trapped on the roads as they tried to flee the offensive to return home or leave the region.
Hundreds of people were seen trudging along the main roads out of the region on foot amid a long, snaking traffic jam, a government official said.
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