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Pakistani Taliban to Swat civilians: Come back

The Taliban has urged civilians to return to the Swat Valley's main city, promising they will not attack security forces battling for control out of concern for the safety of trapped residents.
AP | By HT Correspondent, Islamabad
UPDATED ON MAY 26, 2009 10:37 AM IST

The Taliban has urged civilians to return to the Swat Valley's main city, promising they will not attack security forces battling for control out of concern for the safety of trapped residents.

Pakistan's military dismissed the gesture on Monday as a ploy that would allow the militants to blend in with the residents of Mingora, and said it had no intention of halting its offensive in the valley.

More than 2 million civilians have fled Swat and nearby districts, making it easier for the army to single out insurgents, and returning civilians could complicate the battle. The appeal also appeared designed to play off the growing public concern for thousands still stuck in Mingora amid shortages of food and water.

The US has strongly backed Pakistan's month-old offensive in the northwest valley and neighboring districts. US officials want Pakistan to root out hide-outs used by al-Qaida and Taliban fighters to plan attacks on Western troops in nearby Afghanistan, and Swat is considered an important test of the Muslim nation's ability and willingness to do so.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told The Associated Press late on Sunday and Monday afternoon that the Taliban's pledge was not a formal cease-fire offer and that the Islamist militia's "aides" would stay in the city.

"I would like to appeal to the people of Mingora to get back to their homes and start their routine life as we will not fire even a single shot," Khan said in a phone call from an undisclosed location.

The army says it secured several major intersections in Mingora, a key commercial hub that under normal circumstances is home to at least 375,000 people. Many of the extremists were fleeing Mingora for Kabal, a town to the west that security forces were also trying to secure, the army said in a statement on Monday.

Troops also have secured Malam Jabba - a ski resort that militants wrecked last year - which the army said the Taliban were using as a training center and logistics base.

Asked about the Taliban's appeal, army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas said 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 - which involves some 12,000 to 15,000 security forces - would go on as planned. Earlier, he estimated some 1,500 to 2,000 hardcore militants remained in the valley. Up to 20,000 civilians remain in Mingora. A resident on the city's outskirts said 3,000 people were stranded in his neighborhood.

"We do not have anything to eat. We do not have water," Liaqat Ali said. "We do not have medicines. We do not have any doctor or any hospitals to go to."

During a meeting with a US congressional delegation visiting Monday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appealed for more American aid to help those who managed to get out of Swat, according to a press release from the premier's office.

Washington has already promised $110 million in humanitarian assistance to Pakistan. As many as 2.4 million people have been displaced in the operation, officials said on Monday. At least 160,000 are living in relief camps, while the rest are with relatives, friends or in rented property.

How the government handles the crisis could affect the generally broad public support for the military campaign.

Pakistan will need at least $1 billion to reconstruct damaged areas and help the displaced resettle once the fighting ends, federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said. "To send them back home, we have started initial satellite surveys for the rehabilitation of their homes, business and cultivatable lands," he said.

The military says about 1,100 suspected insurgents have died so far in the offensive.

It has not given a civilian death toll, 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.

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