By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 12 -- Army commandos launched aggressive new search-and-destroy operations in the Swat Valley and several surrounding districts in the Taliban-plagued northwest Tuesday, military officials said.
On the fifth day of a major military offensive, army officials said they were making a concerted effort to wipe out the hideouts and supply bases of Islamist guerrilla forces, mostly located in unpopulated hilly areas, but had not begun a "hard-core urban fight" to dislodge the fighters from major towns in the region.
Officials also said Tuesday that the number of people fleeing the conflict zone has topped 1 million and that more than 360,000 people have registered at 17 camps for newly displaced civilians in the past week.
"God willing, the operation will be completed very soon," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said. Military officials said Taliban recruits were running away and described the offensive as proceeding "smoothly." Government forces are using attack helicopters, warplanes and more than 15,000 ground troops to drive out or kill the militants.
The army's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, told journalists Tuesday that 751 militants have been killed so far in Swat and surrounding areas. He said that the fighting made it difficult to remove their bodies but that photos and videos of captured and dead militiamen would be available within a day or two.
Abbas also said 29 members of the Pakistani security forces have been killed and 71 injured since the operation began Friday. The government forces are believed to be battling about 4,000 heavily armed militants.
"The militants are on the run, and the criminal elements that had joined with them are deserting the Taliban," Abbas said. He said government troops had avoided operating in heavily populated areas but would begin clearing them once civilians had left. The army has briefly lifted its curfew in the war zone nearly every day to allow more people to flee.
However, there have been sporadic reports of civilian casualties, especially in communities where people were trapped in crossfire. Abbas said that he had no specific information about the number of civilians killed but that the government was "taking all possible measures to avoid collateral damage" in populated areas.
Doctors who have fled the region said that the main hospitals in Swat are closed and that the wounded cannot be treated. Refugees and residents reached by phone said Taliban troops are still patrolling the streets of Mingora, the main town in Swat, with no sign of official or army presence.
Meanwhile, army officials said the number of refugees streaming out of Swat and the neighboring areas of Buner and Lower Dir in the past month has swelled to more than 1.3 million. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said more than 500,000 displaced people from the Swat region have registered with the agency since the beginning of May.
Leaders from the region have complained that the government is not sufficiently concerned about the problems of civilians affected by the fighting, but public and political support for the army's effort remains strong.
The offensive was launched last week after the government of President Asif Ali Zardari announced that a peace accord with the militants had failed, citing multiple violations by the Islamist forces. After months of erratic efforts to appease and contain the militants, the government now appears committed to crushing them, a policy that the United States has urged for some time.