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30 May 2009 16:08
Pakistani forces have regained full control of Mingora, a week after re-entering the main town in the Swat valley to dislodge thousands of Taliban fighters, the military said on Saturday.
Recapturing Mingora, 130km north-west of Islamabad, would raise the prospect that some of more than two million people who have fled the conflict zone could soon begin to go home, alleviating a humanitarian crisis.
“It’s very good that Mingora city has come under the full control of the security forces,” military spokesperson Major-General Athar Abbas told a news conference.
The United States and other Western allies have been heartened by the army’s show of resolve. There had been fears for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if the Taliban threat had been allowed to spread any closer to the capital.
About 300 000 people lived in Mingora until the Taliban occupied the town in early May when the army first launched an offensive in Swat, an alpine valley in the north-west.
The security forces have secured an area of up to 70km north of Mingora, including the town of Bahrain, Abbas said, though before the news conference he told Reuters there were still pockets of resistance on the outskirts of Mingora.
Abbas said medical teams and food supplies had arrived in Mingora, which had been cut off since the start of the month.
Gas supplies were restored, but the electricity grid needed repair, and the spokesperson said it would take at least two weeks to restore amenities.
Abbas said 1 217 militants had been killed since the fighting began in late April, while 81 soldiers had been killed, and 250 wounded.
There are no independent casualty estimates available.
The mass exodus from Swat and the neighbouring regions of Lower Dir and Buner, where fighting had broken out in mid-April, prompted United Nations warnings of a long-term humanitarian crisis.
The UN has pleaded for international support for a $543-million fund to help Pakistan cope.
Almost 90% of the displaced people have been offered shelter by families in neighbouring peaceful areas, while the rest have headed for the camps that have sprung up around towns like Mardan and Swabi.
There are fears of disease breaking out as summer temperatures soar on the plains below the north-western mountains.
The army initially estimated the militants had about 5 000 men in Swat, but later said there were only up to 2 000 hardcore fighters.
About 15 000 troops, backed by artillery and air power, were taking part in the offensive, according to the military.
The government first ordered the army into action after Taliban fighters moved south from their Swat stronghold into Buner, a valley just 100km from Islamabad.
Islamist militants have carried out a series of bomb and gun attacks in Pakistani cities during the last few days, in a bid to take the heat off their comrades retreating in Swat.
The military had sealed most routes into Swat, cutting supply lines and reinforcements for the militants, who have begun fleeing north over the mountains into Kalam valley, where troops were being deployed to meet them.
There are expectations the army will turn its focus on the South Waziristan tribal region, bordering Afghanistan, once Swat has been pacified.
Tension is rising in Waziristan, where the army has bottled up the forces of Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, and some families have begun streaming out of the area.
On Saturday, soldiers killed three militants after a military convoy came under attack, while earlier in the week helicopter gunships attacked militant targets.
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