Thousands of terrified Pakistanis dodged Taliban roadblocks on Thursday to flee a northwestern valley as the army stepped up a ground and air assault on the extremists that has been praised by the United States.
Destabilizing violence is flaring in Pakistan just as its embattled president is appealing in Washington for more help to reverse the extension of Taliban-held territory to within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the capital.
The US is particularly concerned by the unrest because its troops are fighting an increasingly virulent insurgency in Afghanistan fed from militant havens in Pakistan's lawless border area.
Officials are bracing for a mass exodus from Swat, a former tourist destination where fighting has resumed after the controversial peace pact broke down earlier this week. The military claimed to have killed more than 80 militants in the region on Wednesday.
There has been no official word on civilian casualties. More than 500,000 Pakistanis driven out by fighting in other regions of the northwest are already living in makeshift camps or with relatives, adding a growing humanitarian crisis to the country's daunting security, economic and political problems.
The UN said on Thursday that it was concerned about the safety of tens of thousands more displaced by the latest violence.
Taliban militants were roaming the streets of Mingora, Swat's main town, on Thursday. Troops were launching artillery and airstrikes on militant targets in the area.
When the army announced it was relaxing its blanket curfew in the area, many of those hunkered down in their homes decided to make a swift exit.
An Associated Press reporter saw several thousand men, women and children, most riding cars, buses and tractors, but some of them on foot, heading south out of Mingora in search of safety. "I can no longer stay here when the bombs are falling everywhere," said Altaf Hussain, a 41-year-old crammed into a motorcycle rickshaw with his wife and four children. Several said they were heading for camps set up by Pakistani authorities and the UN.
However, some residents complained that the Taliban had blocked their escape.