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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Pakistan Army strikes in Swat

Internally displaced Pakistanis, fleeing from military operations against Taliban militants in the Swat valley and Buner, line up for food at a makeshift camp in Mardan on Friday.

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Army on Friday announced a “full-scale” operation in the Swat valley to flush out militants and restore government rule in the district. But it made clear that the forces had no plans yet to extend such action to other Taliban strongholds such as the frontier tribal areas of northern and southern Waziristan.
Some 12,000 to 14,000 troops are deployed in the Swat valley for the operation, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said at a briefing. They are backed by attack helicopters and artillery. “The militants are on the run,” he said.
He claimed that 143 militants were killed over the last 24 hours in operations in the Swat valley and 16 more in neighbouring Buner and Lower Dir. Three soldiers were killed and more than 10 wounded.
Helicopter gunships targeted Taliban training camps in the hills, the Major General said. His estimate of the number of militants in the Swat valley was around 4,000.
The offensive came after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani announced on Thursday night that the government had called out the security forces to fight the militants, and appealed to the people to back the decision. He said the government had given enough opportunity for the Taliban to lay down arms. Islamabad had agreed to their demand for sharia courts in the Malakand region of the NWFP, but the militants had rejected the move.
“After the complete breakdown of law and order and the non-adherence of the militants to the peace deal in Swat valley, the Army was called out in aid of the civil power to eliminate the militants and restore the writ of the government,” Major General Abbas said.
“The operation will continue until such time as we have not liberated the people of Swat from the clutches of the militants. The military will not leave unless it is taken over by the civil administration and the writ of the government is restored.”
The spokesman was asked repeatedly if the military’s resolve to take on the Taliban meant it would go after them in their FATA strongholds and safe havens, seen as the main source of the Taliban threat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“The government has given the military the task of cleansing the Swat valley of militants and to establish government writ and peace in the valley,” was the reply each time.
The UNHCR, the international organisation for displaced people, said it had registered more than 83,000 people who left Dir, Buner and Swat in recent days. That number is expected to rise as more people flee the fighting to the safer parts of the NWFP and other places in Pakistan. Major General Abbas said the Army had taken measures to prevent civilian casualties, but said “no guarantee can be given that there will be no collateral damage.”

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