Pakistani troops battle Taliban as residents flee Swat


Islamabad : Pakistani troops Wednesday targeted Taliban militants in the northwestern Swat Valley as thousands of residents fled the troubled district anticipating an eventual full-scale military offensive.

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The conflict escalated as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was set to meet with his US counterpart Barack Obama in Washington later in the day.

“The military is engaging militant positions with artillery fire in various areas,” local military spokesman Major Nasir Khan told DPA, adding the information about rebels losses were not available yet.

Clashes in Swat, once a popular tourist destination, resumed earlier this week as the peace deal between the government and insurgents neared a collapse.

Khan said ground troops backed by helicopter gunships were also fighting in Shamozai area, located some 25 km from district’s main town of Mingora.

“Taliban had taken over an emerald mine there but we are pushing them out. Our troops today captured an important hilltop,” Khan added.

Security action also continued in Mingora, where the militants are present in nearly all streets. They also looted three commercial banks Wednesday.

The Taliban captured government buildings, including the office of a police chief and a museum, and took positions on rooftops Tuesday in the district’s headquarters, Saidu Sharif.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told the English-language daily The News that their fighters were in control of “90 percent” of the Swat valley. He said their actions were in response to “army violation of the peace deal”.

Thousands of people fled from Mingora Tuesday before the authorities imposed an indefinite curfew. Evacuation is also ongoing from other parts of the valley.

A government minister in North-West Frontier Province said on Tuesday over half a million people in Swat were feared to be internally displaced.

There were unconfirmed reports of civilian casualties in Mingora.

Pakistani government signed the accord with militants and accepted their demand of establishing Islamic courts in February, hoping that it would end the deadly 16-month conflict.