Pakistanis aim to kill leaders of Taliban in Swat
Pakistani authorities are preparing for the return of residents to Swat's main town but decisive victory will only be won when Taliban leaders are dead, an army commander said on Wednesday.world Updated: Jun 03, 2009 14:18 IST
Pakistani authorities are preparing for the return of residents to Swat's main town but decisive victory will only be won when Taliban leaders are dead, an army commander said on Wednesday.
The army began battling Taliban in the region in late April, after a militant thrust into a district 100 km (60 miles) northwest of the capital raised fear at home and abroad that the nuclear-armed country could slowly slip into militant hands.
The army has secured the main town of Mingora and pushed militants out of many other parts of the valley, until recently famous for its ski slopes and summer hiking, but the fighting has also forced about 2 million people from their homes.
There are no independent casualty estimates but the army says more than 1,230 militants have been killed, while it has lost more than 90 men.
But Taliban leaders in Swat have apparently escaped thus far.
Major-General Ijaz Awan, an army commander in Swat, said conclusive victory would only be won when they were killed.
"Their death is vital to kill their myth," Awan told a group of reporters flown to Swat by the army on Wednesday.
The United States, which criticised a February peace pact with the Taliban in Swat as tantamount to abdicating to the militants, has applauded the offensive.
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke is due in Pakistan later on Wednesday to assess relief efforts to help the displaced.
The United States needs Pakistani help to defeat al Qaeda and subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan. While Swat is not on the Afghan border, there was a danger it could have become a bastion for militants fighting across the region.
ARMY TO STAY
Swat's main town of Mingora has been under curfew for most of the past three weeks and looked completely deserted from the air. There was no sign of large-scale destruction. Green fields and orchards cover much of the the valley floor, cut though by the Swat river.
Awan, briefing reporters at a post on a ridge above the town of Saidu Sharif, adjacent to Mingora, said the army had been ordered not to use heavy weapons or airstrikes in Mingora to minimise damage.
Civilian casualties had been "very few", he said.
About 35,000 to 40,000 out of a total population of 350,000 remained in Mingora, Awan said. The army has been trucking in food and other supplies for them.
Awan said from a military point of view displaced civilians could start to come home, but the town's water and electricity supplies had to be restored and that would take two weeks.
From June 17, the displaced were expected to begin returning, he said. Authorities would screen people coming back to weed out any militants trying to slip back.
"First we will ask people from small towns and villages to return, then (from) the main towns including Mingora," Awan said.
The government is raising a community police force to help with security, he said. Many poorly equipped and trained policemen melted away in the face of Taliban aggression.
"They will be given licensed weapons and they will be guarding their areas at night," Awan said.
But the army would remain in the valley for at least a year, even if the entire region is cleared of militants, Awan said.
The army pushed militants from the valley with an offensive in late 2007 but the Taliban drifted back when the army withdrew.
"That wouldn't happen again," he said. "The army as a force is going to stay here."
(Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Jerry Norton)