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Taliban to avoid combat: spokesman

world Updated: May 25, 2009 11:35 IST
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Taliban militants will not attack the military in the main town of Pakistan's Swat Valley to avoid triggering battles that would result in civilian casualties and destruction, a militant spokesman said.

The army on Monday hailed the announcement as a sign that the outnumbered militants were "staring defeat in the face," but Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan denied it was a call for a cease-fire and said the insurgents were not withdrawing from Mingora.

"This is a long war and we will fight it strategically," he told The Associated Press late on Sunday from an undisclosed location in the valley. "We will continue fighting until an Islamic system is enforced."

Pakistan began the offensive last month against militants in the northwestern region after they ignored the terms of a cease-fire. Its Western allies, worried the nuclear-armed nation was buckling under the threat of the militants, have hailed the operation.

Close to 1.9 million people have fled the valley and surrounding districts, but up to 20,000 remain in Mingora, where the military entered on Saturday after encircling it. Many of the estimated 4,000 militants in the valley are believed to be there, raising the prospect of bloody urban fighting.

A resident on the outskirts of the city said 3,000 people were stranded in his neighborhood and were suffering. "We do not have anything to eat. We do not have water," said Liaqat Ali. "We do not have medicines. We do not have any doctor or any hospitals to go to."

Khan, the militant spokesman, said its troops would not engage the army in Mingora because "we have seen when the army retaliate for our attacks they always kill civilians. Their attacks always damage public property. We do not want that," he said.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen Athar Abbas said on Monday that since the militants "have started using ploys to escape. They are now remembering the civilians whom they used to behead and decapitate." He said the operation in the city would go on as planned. Commanders have said they aim to eliminate the militants in the valley and on Friday said any form of cease-fire was highly unlikely.

The military says about 1,100 suspected insurgents have died so far in the offensive. It has not given any tally of civilian deaths, and it's unclear how it is separating noncombatants killed from militants.

Residents fleeing the region have reported dozens of ordinary Pakistanis killed in the fight. Journalists have mostly been barred from reporting there.

Most of the refugees are staying with families or friends, but more than 160,000 are in relief camps just south of the battle zone. Some fear the generally broad public support for the military campaign could drain away if the refugees' plight worsens or if the army gets bogged down too long.