Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pakistan army 'progress' in Swa

Pakistan's army says it has recaptured several areas of Mingora, the main city in the Swat valley, as its offensive against the Taliban continues.

A security official said soldiers were now clearing landmines in the sections of the city back under their control.

But clashes are still continuing, with soldiers and militants engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. Witnesses also report the sounds of sporadic gunfire.

The fighting began after a peace deal broke down earlier this month.

The military says Mingora is surrounded, and most of the militants' ammunition dumps have been destroyed.

Several important intersections and three main squares, including Green Square where the Taliban is thought to have carried out several beheadings, are now reportedly controlled by the army.

The military claim to have killed 17 Taliban militants - a figure the Taliban denies.

The army also said it had made progress in other parts of the Swat valley, with the city of Matta reportedly cleared of militants.

But army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas warned that the operation in Mingora could be "painfully slow", as up to 20,000 civilians were still trapped there.

"This is an extremely difficult, extremely dangerous operation because clearance has to be done street by street, house by house," he told reporters on Saturday.

A curfew remains in place in the city, which is the administrative and business hub of the Swat valley.

'Slow offensive'

The BBC's Shoaib Hassan, in Islamabad, says the Swat battle is the most important yet in the army's offensive against the Taliban in the north-west.

A swift victory would bolster public support for a greater fight against the militants, our correspondent adds.

A Taliban spokesman said the militants would fight the security forces to their last breath.

Nearly 1.5 million people have been displaced by this month's fighting in the north-western region, and about two million since last August, the United Nations refugee agency says.

The UN recently appealed for $543m in humanitarian aid to help those displaced by the conflict.

Pakistan's army began an offensive against the Taliban on 2 May after the peace deal broke down and the militants began expanding their area of influence.

A recent investigation by the BBC suggested that less than half of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which contains Swat Valley, and the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas is under full government control.

In Swat, the army says that about 15,000 members of the security forces are fighting between 4,000 and 5,000 militants.

It says more than 1,000 militants and more than 50 soldiers have been killed since the offensive began.

In a separate development over the weekend, police said a French tourist had been kidnapped by gunmen in the southern Baluchistan province.

Four other French nationals travelling with the tourist reported the kidnapping, near the town of Dalbandin 80km (50 miles) from the Afghan border.