By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 31, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 30 -- The Pakistani military announced Saturday that it had retaken from the Taliban the largest city in the Swat Valley, although a significant number of insurgents are thought to have retreated into the nearby hills.
The army's victory comes nearly a month after it launched an offensive aimed at reclaiming Swat from Taliban fighters who had commandeered the picturesque region and enforced their rigid brand of Islamic law. The army started the operation under heavy pressure from the U.S. government, and the Obama administration has been closely watching its progress for signs that Pakistan is serious about its commitment to battling rising militancy here.
Capturing Mingora, 80 miles north of Islamabad, the capital, has been one of the army's primary objectives. But Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, conceded that the Taliban had not put up a strong fight for the city and that many insurgents probably slipped away. Large parts of Swat remain beyond the government's grip.
"They had prepared Mingora city . . . with bunkers, but when they realized that they were being encircled and the noose was tightening, they decided not to give a pitched battle," he said at an afternoon news conference.
When the army first entered Mingora last weekend, the Taliban said it would not fight there because it did not want to put civilians at risk.
Overall, more than 1,200 insurgents have been killed since the army's offensive began, according to military statistics. Nearly 100 soldiers have lost their lives. The numbers have been impossible to verify because nearly all journalists and local officials have fled.
The army has been unable to capture or kill top Taliban leaders in Swat, including Maulana Fazlullah, known as Mullah Radio for his penchant for spreading calls for jihad via pirated FM radio signals. The government announced a $600,000 reward this week for information leading to Fazlullah's killing or capture.
"We are trying to target the top leadership of militants, and they are constantly being followed," Abbas said.
The Taliban has held Swat off and on since late 2007. But the government decided this spring to try to regain it after a peace deal broke down. The military says it has dispatched 15,000 troops to battle what was originally thought to be a militia of 3,000 to 4,000 Taliban fighters.
The battle for Swat has come at a high cost for local residents, with nearly 3 million civilians displaced from their homes, according to the latest government estimates. The government has struggled to provide basic services to the displaced, who have flooded nearby towns, and much of the burden for supporting them has fallen on private groups and individuals.
The government insists that the displaced families will be allowed to return when it is safe for them to do so. Some have already returned to the adjacent district of Buner, but there were no suggestions Saturday that Mingora was ready for its residents to come back.
The Taliban has responded to the government's thrust into Swat with attacks in some of Pakistan's largest cities. Last week, attackers hit Lahore in the east and Peshawar in the northwest with sophisticated, deadly strikes. Taliban leaders have warned that they will carry out attacks in other major Pakistani cities, including Islamabad, in the days to come.