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Thousands flee fighting in Pakistan valley

world Updated: May 06, 2009 09:29 IST

Turbaned Taliban militants seized government buildings, laid mines and fought security forces in the Swat Valley, as fear of a major operation led thousands to pack their belongings on their heads and backs, cram aboard buses and flee the northwestern region.

The collapse of a 3-month-old truce with the Taliban means Pakistan will now have to fight to regain control of the Swat Valley, testing the ability of its stretched military and the resolve of civilian leaders who until recently were insisting the insurgents could be partners in peace. The government feared the refugee exodus could reach 500,000.

The developments brought Islamabad’s faltering campaign against militancy into sharp focus as President Asif Ali Zardari was preparing for talks on Wednesday in Washington with President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on how best to counter an increasingly overlapping spectrum of extremist groups behind surging violence in the neighboring countries.

The Obama administration hopes to build a strong and lasting regional alliance, linking success in Afghanistan with security in Pakistan. Toward that end, the administration is encouraging Pakistan to confront _ not make peace with _ the Taliban and other militants.

“We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies,” Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a congressional committee on Tuesday. “We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support and involvement.”

In an interview with CNN, Zardari defended his country’s ability to fight the militants within its borders. “It doesn’t work like that. They can’t take over,” he said. “How can they take over?”

Fearing that war could consume the region, thousands fled the main Swat town of Mingora on Tuesday. Refugees clambered onto the roofs of buses after seats and floors filled up. Children and adults alike carried belongings on their heads and backs.

“I do not have any destination. I only have an aim _ to escape from here,” said Afzal Khan, 65, who was waiting for a bus with his wife and nine children. “It is like doomsday here. It is like hell.”

Shafi Ullah, a student, said the whole town was fleeing.

“Can you hear the explosions? Can you hear the gunshots?” he said, pointing to a part of town where fighting was continuing.

It is far from certain that the Pakistani public has the stomach for a long battle in Swat. Given that the militants have had time to rest and reinforce their positions in the three months since the truce took effect, any operation would involve fierce fighting in an urban setting and almost certainly cause significant civilian casualties and damage to property.

In recent days, however, there have been signs of a turn in mood against the Taliban. Many commentators now say the movement’s true nature was exposed by its refusal to go along with the peace deal despite the government’s best efforts.

Pakistan agreed to a truce in the valley and surrounding districts in February after two years of fighting with militants who had beheaded political opponents and burned scores of girls schools in their campaign to implement a harsh brand of Islam modeled on their counterparts in Afghanistan.

As part of the agreement, the government imposed Islamic law last month in the hope that insurgents would lay down their arms _ something they did not do.

Last week, the Taliban moved from their stronghold in the valley into Buner, a district just 60 miles (100 kilomters) from the capital. That caused alarm at home and abroad.

The army responded with an offensive it says has killed more than 100 militants and was “progressing smoothly” Tuesday, according to a brief statement.

Fighting, which had been rising in Swat in recent days, escalated on Tuesday in Mingora and the neighboring town of Saidu Sharif, according to Associated Press reporters in the towns and an army statement. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Militants wearing turbans were deployed on most streets and on high buildings in Mingora, and security forces were barricaded in their bases. Khushal Khan, the top administrator in Swat, said insurgents were laying mines in the town to hinder any army advance.

Late on Tuesday, several dozen militants surrounded a police residential compound and an adjoining station in Saidu Sharif after occupying the offices of the police chief and the civil administration, said an officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

“The limited forces inside the police building cannot survive for long unless the militants are engaged from outside,” he said from inside the station. “We are in war conditions and need reinforcements and supplies.”

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for the North West Frontier Province, said up to 500,000 people were expected to flee the valley. Swat is already struggling to house half a million people driven there by fighting from other northwestern regions over the last year.

Neither the military nor the central government was available to comment on Tuesday on whether a fully fledged offensive was planned in the valley.

Before the peace deal, the militants were estimated to have about 4,000 well trained and heavily armed fighters in the valley. It is unclear how many security forces are already stationed there. Under the terms of the truce, the army was not required to pull out of the region.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the militants were in control of “90 per cent” of the valley. He said they were merely responding to what he called army violations of the deal _ attacking insurgents and adding troops. He accused the government of caving to US pressure in moving into Buner to counter the Taliban.

“Everything will be OK once our rulers stop bowing before America,” Muslim Khan, the Taliban spokesman, told AP by cell phone, adding that the peace deal had “been dead” since the operation in Buner.

The United States and other Western nations have opposed the peace deal with the Swat Taliban, warning that other deals had broken down and given the militants time to regroup.

Pakistan has waged several offensives in the border region against al-Qaida and Taliban militants in recent years. Most have ended inconclusively or with peace deals amid public anger over civilian casualties and distaste for taking on fellow Muslims. The army has long focused on the threat posed by longtime rival India and is not used to the demands of guerrilla warfare.