Pakistan Intensifies Effort With Thrust Into Swat's Main City

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 24, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 23 -- Pakistani troops pushed into the largest city in the contested Swat Valley on Saturday and fought block to block with Taliban militants in an apparent escalation of the army's effort to retake the picturesque area, which has become a symbol of insurgent defiance and government deficiency.

The army said the operation in Mingora marked the beginning of the most important phase of its nearly month-old campaign to win control of Swat and warned that the fighting would intensify. Previous clashes were centered in more rural parts of the valley, and Saturday's offensive could unleash a bloody urban street fight.

The battle for Swat, which is seen as a crucial test in Pakistan's war with radical Islamist insurgents, has forced about 2 million civilians to flee the area. The vast majority of Mingora's residents have left, and they may not be able to return to their homes for months or longer. The military estimates that as many as 20,000 residents remain trapped in the city and has said it will move carefully to avoid civilian casualties as well as the mines that Taliban fighters are thought to have laid to destroy advancing vehicles.

"The pace of the operation will be painfully slow. So be patient. But the operation has started, and, God willing, we are going to take it to a logical conclusion," said Maj. Gen Athar Abbas, a military spokesman.

The Taliban has controlled Swat off and on since late 2007. Under a peace deal with the government, its fighters were supposed to lay down their weapons this spring in exchange for the institution of Islamic courts in Swat. But the truce collapsed when Taliban fighters overran the adjacent areas of Buner and Dir, putting their forces within 60 miles of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. For nearly a month since the deal's demise, 15,000 Pakistani troops have fought about 3,000 to 4,000 Taliban fighters up and down steep mountain passes.

The Pakistani military boasts that it has retaken some Taliban strongholds, including strategically important hilltops in Swat, which was once a major tourist destination. But the Taliban is thought to have dug into positions in Mingora, and any effort to win back the densely packed city is likely to be long and bloody. Abbas said troops would conduct house-to-house searches and had been warned about suicide attacks.

A Mingora resident reached by telephone said there had been intense fighting in the center of the city Saturday. Nasir Khan, a merchant, said that he had been stranded in the city and that from his home he could hear the two sides trading fire. The battle, he said, was apparently unfolding in several parts of Mingora, including the central bus terminal and along the main road near the city's primary gateway.

"Taliban militants are offering tough resistance," he said.

The army said Saturday evening that 17 Taliban fighters had been killed in the previous 24 hours. Overall, more than 1,000 militants have been killed, the army said, although the number is impossible to verify independently because nearly all journalists and civilian officials have fled the valley. About 100 security officers have been killed in the operation, the army said. Accounts from residents who have fled suggest that dozens of civilians have also been killed.

Although the Taliban began as an Afghan movement that received extensive support from the Pakistani military and intelligence services, the group has turned its guns on the Pakistani state in recent years. The group has a hold on the tribal areas that straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has made significant inroads in other parts of Pakistan's northwest.

The people of Swat have long been known for their moderation, but the valley was vulnerable to Taliban advances because of its proximity to the Afghan border and the ineffectiveness of the government in exerting local control. During their reign in the valley, the militants have instituted a severe interpretation of Islamic law, one that features public lashings for petty crimes and beheadings for those who dare to challenge Taliban authority. The militants are led locally by Maulana Fazlullah, a charismatic young preacher who spreads his message of armed insurrection against the state through pirated radio transmissions.

The United States, fearing that the insurgency will spread from Swat and destabilize Pakistan, has pressured the government to intensify its fight against the Taliban.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said in televised remarks Saturday that Pakistan "is determined to stamp out terrorism." But he conceded that intelligence reports indicate militants "can carry out attacks in any part of the country." Gillani said he expects the Taliban to launch strikes in retaliation for the military's operation in Swat.

Gillani played down reports, however, that the army plans an imminent operation in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan. President Asif Ali Zardari earlier indicated that such an offensive, which would pit the army against the Taliban in the heart of their territory, was inevitable.

Also Saturday, the French Foreign Ministry said that a French tourist was kidnapped in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, an area where separatists have long waged a low-level insurgency. The ministry did not provide details.

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.


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