Pakistan's army lifted its curfew in battle-scarred Swat Valley on Friday, allowing thousands to flee as troops prepared for street-to-street battles with Taliban militants entrenched in the valley's biggest town.
Pakistan has vowed to eliminate militants from Swat and two neighboring districts under intense American pressure for action against extremists threatening both nuclear-armed Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.
Columns of cars, trucks and horse-drawn carts packed with people and laden with bundles of possessions streamed out of Mingora, according to witnesses and television reports.
Some picked their way past the carcasses of burned-out vehicles that failed to make it to safety. Others opted for rough dirt roads through the fields and mountains. Many more were hurrying south on foot with no more than the clothes on their backs. "I was waiting for the opportunity to leave Mingora. I got the chance today, and now I am going to Mardan," a city
just to the south, said Ismail Khan, a 66-year-old shooing his relatives onto a bus.
Khan said he had seen bodies lying in some of the fast-emptying town's streets, but he didn't know if they were militants or civilians.
Pakistan's army, which launched its assault last month, said on Thursday that its troops had advanced to within four miles (six kilometers) of Mingora and urged people to flee. "The civilian population should leave the city so that security forces can take the militants to task in street to street fighting," spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. About 800,000 people have already abandoned the area amid escalating clashes, which the army says has left more than 800 militants and dozens of troops dead.
Some 80,000 people have moved into sweltering camps set up by the government and the United Nations, most of them near Mardan. Khalid Khan, a government official in Mardan, told the Express News TV channel on Friday that authorities were setting up more camps for the refugees.