By Lehaz Ali (AFP) – May 25, 2009
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — Pakistan's military said Monday it was facing "stiff resistance" as it battled to wrest Swat valley out of Taliban hands, in an offensive that has now scattered 2.38 million terrified civilians.
Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas warned it could take up to 10 days to regain control of Swat's capital Mingora, as the punishing assault across three rugged northwest districts entered a fifth week.
A Taliban spokesman told AFP that firebrand commander Maulana Fazlullah had asked Taliban to stop battling in the key city, but said the insurgents would continue to fight for their vision of imposing a harsh brand of Islamic law.
"Maulana Fazlullah has directed all his mujahedeen to stop resistance in Mingora and its surroundings to avoid hardships to the people and losses to the civilian population," spokesman Muslim Khan said from an undisclosed location.
But he added: "We will fight for the enforcement of sharia law till the last drop of our blood."
Ground forces have been fighting street-by-street with Taliban fighters in Mingora, the business and administrative hub of the scenic Swat region which has been ripped apart by a two-year insurgency by the Islamist extremists.
"It may take seven to 10 days to clear Mingora town of militants," Abbas told AFP. Troops first entered Mingora on Saturday.
"The operation may be a little slow to avoid civilian casualties, damage and destruction to property. There are also improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted in Mingora, and we have to clear these IEDs as well."
On Monday, the military claimed to have secured Malam Jabba, a Taliban bastion in Swat once popular with tourists for its pristine ski slopes, and to have made gains in several key Mingora neighbourhoods.
"Security forces are facing stiff resistance," a military statement said, adding that four suspected militants had been killed in the last 24 hours.
A security official said earlier that troops were still battling "pockets of resistance" on the streets of Mingora, which has seen Taliban fighters armed with guns and rocket launchers patrol the streets in the past weeks.
The battles across the northwest have sent panicked civilians fleeing their homes, some crowding into refugee camps but most huddling with relatives.
"In the new influx, 2.38 million people have been registered," said Ariane Rummery, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, citing figures given to the agency by the North West Frontier Province authorities.
"That's the new influx registered from May 2 from Swat, Lower Dir and Buner (districts)," she added.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters the government was doing all it could to care for the uprooted people, but said that one billion dollars would be needed to help them rebuild their lives.
The United Nations has already launched an appeal for 543 million dollars to help the massive number of displaced.
The newly-displaced join more than 550,000 people who fled similar battles last year and rights groups have warned that it is Pakistan's biggest movement of people since partition from India in 1947.
Fears are also growing for between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians that the military say are still trapped with scant food and medical supplies in Mingora, which usually has a population of 300,000.
Pakistan says nearly 1,160 militants and 69 soldiers have died in the offensive 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.
Reporters and humanitarian workers have mostly been barred from visiting the conflict zone and telephone land lines and mobile signals appear to have been cut in Mingora, making the military's claims impossible to verify.
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.
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