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Troops hunt Taliban as Pakistan says victory nears

Pakistan’s defence secretary said on Sunday that a month-long offensive to crush Taliban fighters in the northwest could end within days, as security forces hunted down the militant leadership.

world Updated: May 31, 2009 19:48 IST

Pakistan’s defence secretary said on Sunday that a month-long offensive to crush Taliban fighters in the northwest could end within days, as security forces hunted down the militant leadership.

Swat valley’s main town Mingora is back in government hands, the military announced late on Saturday, and Syed Athar Ali told a security forum in Singapore that three targeted northwest districts were almost clear of Taliban rebels.

“Operations in Swat, Buner and adjoining areas have almost met complete success,” the secretary of defence said.

“Only five to ten per cent job is remaining and hopefully within the next two to three days these pockets of resistance will be cleared.”

The army remains locked in battle in some areas, but the fall of Mingora was a critical milestone in an offensive launched after the Taliban thrust to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad in April.

Security officials also reported that 45 militants were killed in fierce fighting in South Waziristan near the Afghan border, a bolt-hole for Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants south of the current army bombardment.

Washington, which is firmly backing the military drive, had warned that the rebels threatened Pakistan’s very existence and identified the country and Afghanistan as central to its ‘war on terror´.

“We are trying to target the top leadership of militants and they are constantly being followed,” chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said as he announced the Mingora win.

Officials said lower-ranking leaders had been killed but it was harder to get to the top leaders, who had a network of hardcore militants around them and had slipped into the rugged mountain terrain.

“They will be eliminated wherever we find them,” said one military official, who did not wish to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, adding: “We believe that they are somewhere in the mountains.”

Pakistan has slapped a 600,000-dollar price on the head of firebrand Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah for masterminding the nearly two-year uprising in the valley to enforce sharia law.

Fazlullah led thousands of supporters, a mixture of hardcore ideologues and disenfranchised young men, in a brutal campaign that has beheaded opponents, burned scores of schools and fought government troops since November 2007.

The government has also offered rewards for 21 rebel chiefs -- wanted dead or alive -- from Swat.

But as the government ups its campaign to stamp out the militants, fears are growing of a wave of revenge attacks.

The northwestern capital Peshawar and the eastern cultural centre of Lahore have both been rocked by deadly explosions in the last five days, killing a total of 39 people and wounding hundreds more.

A spokesman for Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud -- who has a five-million-dollar bounty on his head posted by the United States -- has claimed Wednesday’s suicide bombing on a police building in Lahore.

Hakimullah Mehsud also warned of more “massive attacks” to revenge the Swat military operation and in protest at Islamabad’s ties with Washington.

In South Waziristan on Sunday, police official Syed Ahmad said that 45 militants and two soldiers were killed as security forces repulsed an attack on army posts.

Fears that the current army offensive could expand into Waziristan have already sent thousands of people there fleeing their homes, although the military have denied any movements in the tribal belt are imminent.

Nearly 2.4 million people have already fled the current offensive.

The military said it had relaxed its strict curfew Sunday in most parts of the northwest including Mingora to allow people trapped on the roads to return home or leave the region.

Also Sunday, Taliban militants attacked a school in Hangu town south of Peshawar, killing one administrator and kidnapping three other people, local policeman Shoukat Hussain said.

In North Waziristan, meanwhile, a former government doctor and an Afghan national were killed by suspected militants, officials said.