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09 May 2009 08:32
Pakistani jets bombed suspected militant positions in a Taliban-controlled area on Saturday morning as desperate residents appealed for a pause in the fighting so they could escape to safety.
More than 45 000 people have fled the operation in the north-western Swat Valley and surrounding districts, which followed strong US pressure on Pakistan to fight back against militants advancing towards the capital.
Pakistan’s government on Friday declared an end to peace initiatives with Taliban insurgents controlling Swat, signalling the start of a major military operation to drive them from the valley.
In a televised address, the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said the army was being called in “to restore the honour and dignity of our homeland. We will destroy those elements who have destroyed the peace of our people and our nation,” he said.
The announcement, coming after a day of fierce air bombardment against militant positions, was expected to signal the start of a ground offensive similar to the one already under way in neighbouring Dir and Buner districts, where the army claims to have killed more than 200 militants in the last two weeks.
It will exacerbate a humanitarian crisis expected to affect more than one million people.
Tens of thousands have already fled Swat and the government expects the total to reach 500 000, adding to the 550 000 displaced by previous fighting in North West Frontier province.
Gilani appealed for international aid to deal with the humanitarian crisis and to “help enhance the capacity of our law-enforcing institutions”.
It promises to be a bloody battle marked by urban warfare, which has rarely occurred in clashes with the Taliban. They have dug into positions across Mingora, the main town in the valley, where helicopter gunships pounded houses under militant control on Friday.
Several militants were killed when a rocket destroyed a lawyer’s house, while a mortar destroyed a house in nearby Matta village, killing five people, including two children. The death toll from the violence was thought to run into dozens.
During the afternoon thousands of Mingora residents took advantage of a break in curfew to flee; some residents estimated that up to 80% of the population had left. On one street Abdul Qayuum (61) sat on a suitcase by the roadside as he waited for his son to find a vehicle that would transport them out of the area. “We want to leave as quickly as we can,” he said.
The Taliban took advantage of the curfew to lay mines around the city. Commanders wearing face masks roamed the streets, issuing orders through walkie-talkies. One commander scorned the Islamabad government as an American stooge. “We are Muslims and we want an Islamic system. Who the hell are they [America] to object?” said Marwan (30).
The Taliban promised the army a bloody reception in Mingora and boasted of having planted hundreds of mines. “The security forces cannot even budge in this area,” he said. Sajjad Khan (22) said he knew of 14 funerals for civilians in his district of the city. “Now there is fear everywhere and everyone is leaving.”
The violence coincided with a visit by the president, Asif Ali Zardari, to Washington, where the army’s newly aggressive stance against the Taliban has been loudly welcomed by previously critical Obama administration officials. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said the Taliban push into Buner, 96km north of Islamabad, had served as an “alarm call” to the Zardari government. - guardian.co.uk
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