Pakistani security forces achieved a major breakthrough on Wednesday by capturing the stronghold of the Swat Taliban as militant casualties on the 18th day of a military operation in the country's restive northwest rose to 762 and the army chief asked his troops to minimise collateral damage during their advance.
The security forces had established a firm foothold in Peochar, the headquarters of Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, and other areas of the district, the military said.
Fazlullah is the son-in-law of Taliban-backed radical cleric Sufi Mohammad who had brokered a controversial peace accord with the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government and whose violation by the militants had prompted the military action April 26.
Eleven militants had been killed in the operations till Friday evening, the military said, taking to 762 the total number of extremists killed so far.
Normalcy was returning to the adjacent Bunner district, where farmers had begun harvesting crops and shops had started functioning, the military said.
Also on Wednesday, Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani asked his troops to minimise collateral damage in their operations and to resort to precision strikes.
"COAS (chief of army staff) has instructed the army to ensure minimum collateral damage even at the expense of taking risks, by resorting to precision strikes," a statement issed by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said.
"The Pakistan Army is acutely aware of the nature of ongoing operations in Swat and elsewhere, and their likely fallouts," the statement said.
"Consequent to any military operation in populated areas, collateral damage and IDP (internally displaced persons) issues are always a natural outcome. In fact, the overall success of operations in such areas is a sum total of the three efforts - conduct of military operations, minimizing collateral damage and correctly managing IDPs," the statement added.
The statement is a clear indication there would be no early end to the military action in the Swat, Lower Dir and Buner districts of the NWFP.
In fact, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported Wednesday that the Pakistani army was planning to open a second front against the Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal agency as early as next month.
"COAS said that management of IDPs is as important as military operation in Swat. It has been decided to provide all-out support to Government and International Agencies in the management and rehabilitation of IDPs.
"For this purpose, a Corps Headquarters headed by Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed has been tasked to form a Special Support Group for IDPs, for coordinating and directing all efforts of government, army and other agencies for optimal utilization of resources in providing relief," the statement said.
Over half a million people have been displaced by the military operation, with the numbers growing by the hour. The Pakistani government has released Rs.1 billion for their relief and rehabilitation, even as it has appealed for massive international aid to enable it tide over the crisis.
The ISPR statement said that "for the first time in its history", the Pakistan Army has decided to give part of its daily ration - flour, sugar, lentils and cooking oil - to the IDPs.
"This exemplifies the army's spirit of sacrifice. The food items so provided will be able to daily feed about 80,000 adults," the statement said.
The army has also deployed its medical resources in all the IDPs camps with supplies adequate for 90 days. Local military hospitals will also treat patients, the statement said.
"Inshallah, together the Pakistani nation and army, will provide relief to the IDPs in a manner, which will rekindle the memories of 2005 earthquake relief effort," the statement said.