More than 60 militants, five troopers and 35 civilians were killed Wednesday during assaults backed by artillery and helicopter gunships against Taliban fighters in Pakistan's two northwestern districts, military officials and media reports said.
The conflict in Buner and Swat districts escalated as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was set to meet with his US counterpart Barack Obama in Washington later in the day.
Military sources from restive Swat district, previously a popular tourist destination, told DPA that the government forces regained control of an emerald mine on a hill overlooking Mingora, the district's main town. "Forces used gunship helicopters and heavy artillery to weaken them (Taliban) and later moved regular infantry to take over the mines," said an army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
"The militants have evacuated from the mine and the hilltop where they were regularly firing upon the security forces," he added.
Troops also destroyed a rebel command centre at White Place in the Takhatband area. An army statement said 35 militants were killed in both assaults. "Exchange of fire took place between militants and police at Saidu Sharif and Matta police station. Reportedly two militants were killed," the statement said further.
Three troops died and four were injured when a roadside bomb hit their convoy in Bahrain area. Two more soldiers died while defending Mingora Grid station against Taliban's attack. The clashes in Swat resumed earlier this week as the peace deal between the government and insurgents crumbled.
Pakistani government signed the accord with militants and accepted their demand to establish Islamic courts in February, hoping that it would end the deadly 16-month conflict.
Instead the militants invaded the neighbouring Buner district last month, prompting a military offensive that has killed more than 100 rebels, according to the government.
On Wednesday military and paramilitary troops pounded rebel positions with airpower and artillery in several areas of Buner.
According to a press statement released by the media centre of Paramilitary Frontier Corps, 27 Taliban militants were killed. Buner's fall raised concerns at home as well as across the world because it lies just 100 km from Islamabad, the capital of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Combat also continued inside Mingora town, where the militants are present in nearly all streets, using civilians as human shields in some cases, according to sources. 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 Saidu Sharif, about three km from Mingora. Rebel 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 on Tuesday before authorities imposed an indefinite curfew. Civilians were also reported to be fleeing from other parts of the valley.
A government minister in North West Frontier Province said Tuesday that over half a million people in Swat were feared to be internally displaced. The Dawn television said the Taliban had come down from the hilltops into Mingora city and preventing civilians from fleeing. According to the news channel, some 35 civilians had been killed and dozens of houses were damaged and destroyed.
Dozens of children at an orphanage in Mingora were caught in crossfire between the security forces and Taliban militants.
Mohammad Ali, the administrator of the facility "Our Home" said the military troops took positions on the roof of the four-storey building and were targeting militants from there. "The lives of the children are at risk. Taliban have not so far fired upon the building, but it can happen anytime," Ali told DPA by telephone.
According to Ali, more than 150 children had been evacuated to relative safety, but 80 others were still on the ground floor of the building along with some staff members.