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In main Swat town, no sign of civilians or Taliban

Pakistani soldiers stood guard along its narrow roads, but there was no sign of civilian life in the Swat Valley’s main city, nor signs of the Taliban. Across the river stood another militant stronghold, reminding the army its work was not done.

world Updated: Jun 04, 2009 11:52 IST

Pakistani soldiers stood guard along its narrow roads, but there was no sign of civilian life in the Swat Valley’s main city, nor signs of the Taliban. Across the river stood another militant stronghold, reminding the army its work was not done.

A top Pakistani commander told journalists visiting Mingora on Wednesday that it would be at least another year before troops could leave Swat _ a nod to concerns that insurgents driven out in a month-old operation could return if police and local government authorities are not re-established.

Top Taliban commanders are still at large, possibly across the river from Mingora in the Kabal area, Maj. Gen. Ijaz Awan told the reporters, who were on the first army-sponsored media trip to the city that included foreign journalists since its recapture last week.

“Their death is vital to killing their myth,” Awan said of the escaped militant leaders.

There is strong support, domestically and in the US, for Pakistan’s month-old offensive in Swat. The operation has already come at a cost, however _ up to 3 million residents in and around the valley have had to flee to other parts of the country.

In Islamabad on Wednesday, visiting American envoy Richard Holbrooke rejected a claim by Osama bin Laden in a newly issued tape that the US was responsible for the Swat refugee crisis. American officials have long pressed the Pakistanis to clear militant havens on their territory from where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters could plan attacks on Western troops across the border in Afghanistan.

“The idea that anyone is responsible for the refugee crisis other than al-Qaida and the Taliban and the other people that have caused such tragedy in Pakistan is ludicrous,” Holbrooke said. He also announced that President Barack Obama had asked Congress to approve $200 million more aid for the refugees, on top of $110 million already pledged.

“We believe that the actions taken by the Pakistani government and the military in recent weeks have been necessary, essential and have improved the situation” in Pakistan, Holbrooke said. “But the fighting is still going on, there is a lot more to go.”

He said Pakistan’s rebuilding of damaged towns and resettling refugees would be a “critical” test, noting, “The people will have to be shown that this is not just a military operation, but one that has an enduring effect.”

Pakistani army offensives over the past two years in Swat have been separated by failed peace deals. This time around, officials say they have mounted their most intense operation, one made easier by the mass exodus of civilians in the luscious, green valley, which was once a haven for honeymooners and other tourists.

Awan said that in Mingora, the valley’s main commercial center, the army made a special effort to minimize property damage. Troops tried to avoid using heavy weapons whenever possible, preferring surgical strikes and street-by-street fighting.

Quick army-escorted drives through parts of the sprawling city, normally home to at least 375,000 people, showed that the vast majority of buildings were intact. There were pockets, however, where intense fighting had clearly occurred.

At a crossroads dubbed “bloody intersection” by locals because the Taliban would leave mutilated bodies of victims there, chunks of one multistory building were blown away, and security gates had been torn off at least one storefront. Broken glass and bricks lay all around.

Some 40 paramilitary troops and a handful of police fought Taliban fighters for three weeks at a local power station, officials said. The militants took positions along buildings facing the station, and launched rocket-propelled grenades at the troops inside, while using a loudspeaker to urge the security forces to give up, officials said.

In one corner, two holes were dug in the ground. They served as temporary graves for two fallen soldiers, officials said.

No civilians were in sight in the city, which was under curfew, even though officials say up to 40,000 remained. Power, gas and telecommunications services were down, one reason officials were discouraging refugees from returning home just yet.

Awan said those basic services should be restored by June 17. Even then, he said, it would be safer for the refugees to wait until police officers are back on patrol and government officials working again. The hope is that refugees can come back in stages, probably to smaller towns in Swat first, he said.

Karim Khattak, a top government official for the division in Pakistan’s northwest that includes Swat, said the provincial government hopes to get residents to sign up as police volunteers to complement regular police forces. The goal is to have nearly 2,500 regular police back in the valley by the end of the month, Awan said.

Khattak urged the international community to give more aid, noting that the Taliban during their campaign had destroyed some 200 schools, mostly those of girls. He said returning girls to school will be a top priority, as will reopening the cinema.

Awan said he believes many of the top Taliban commanders, possibly even Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, were holed up in the Kabal area, which he suggested would face the next round of the offensive.

“We have bottled them up very well,” Awan said. “Hopefully this will be a decisive battle.”

All the main cities in the valley should be under control within days, but the fighting throughout more rural areas could last another two months, chief army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.

Army troops were successful in choking off supply lines for militants, a key reason many melted away. Some headed north to Kalam, a small town heavily dependent on tourism that is nestled between snow-capped mountains and next to a gushing river.

During a briefing there on Wednesday, local businessmen and leaders said their food stocks were running low, but that the militants appeared to have fled since troops showed up.

“It is nice. The military is here and we are safe,” said Malak Shahroom, who runs a local tourist information center. He said he had lost thousands of dollars worth of business because fighting in the region had damaged the tourism industry.

Awan, whose primary area of responsibility is the lower half of the valley, said the army was able to intercept roughly 60 percent of the militants’ communications, which are usually transmitted through handheld radios.

The military also exhibited hundreds of arms, ammunition and other items confiscated from alleged militant hideouts and homes, including roadside bombs made from pressure cookers, heavy rifles, binoculars, and even a shirt bearing a picture of Osama bin Laden.

Awan said many of the weapons found with militants were Russian made, while others had no markings but appeared to be Chinese made.

The military says it has killed more than 1,200 insurgents in the month-old offensive in Swat and surrounding districts. Army officials interviewed Wednesday insisted civilians deaths were “very few,” but gave no firm figures.

The generally broad Pakistani support for the offensive may sour if civilian casualties turn out to be high or if the government is perceived to deal badly with the refugee crisis.

The government is also having to contend with a rise in militant activity in other parts of the country, including suicide attacks that officials say are revenge for the Swat offensive.