PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Pakistan’s military said “intense’ battles had broken out Sunday as it advanced on a key Taliban stronghold in a fierce offensive that has scattered more than a million terrified civilians.
Ground forces entered Matta and Kanju towns in the scenic Swat valley, a bastion of firebrand Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah who is behind a nearly two-year uprising that has devastated the area, security officials said.
Under pressure from Washington, Pakistan’s military began pounding Taliban positions in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat districts three weeks ago after the rebels advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.
“Security forces have surrounded and entered the town(s) of Matta and Kanju to eliminate miscreants-terrorists from the area,” the military said in a statement.
“Security forces, with the help of the local population, will not only clear, secure and hold the area, but will make sure that miscreants-terrorists are chased and killed to avert any possibility of their return.”
Matta is about 25 kilometres northwest of Swat’s main town Mingora, where gun-totting Taliban militants have been patrolling the streets in a bloody campaign to extend their control and enforce a harsh brand of Islamic law.
Kanju town is just two kilometres from Mingora’s outskirts, signalling an imminent advance on Mingora itself, where thousands of civilians are believed to be cowering behind locked doors without food, water or medical care.
“At present intense fire engagements are taking place at the outskirts of Mingora,” the statement said.
A security official said they had relaxed a curfew and asked residents to leave Matta on Sunday morning.
The interior minister claimed that “more than 1,000 militants” had been killed since the offensive began on April 26, although such tolls are impossible to verify and there is no data yet on civilian casualties .
“The army offensive will continue until the last militant is flushed out,” Rehman Malik told a press conference. “The militants are on the run, they will be eliminated at any cost.”
The military statement said that 25 Taliban fighters had been killed in the last 24 hours alone.
The northwest was already reeling after the death toll from a devastating car bomb that hit the main town Peshawar on Saturday rose to 12, including four children and two women, a police official said.
The blast ripped through a packed street, leaving severed body parts on the road near an ice cream shop and an Internet cafe.
Many of the tide of refugees fleeing the punishing offensive in swathes of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) had taken refuge from the bombardment in Peshawar, the provincial capital.
Peshawar is the gateway to Pakistan’s troubled tribal belt on the Afghan border, where the United States says Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists have carved out safe havens to plot new attacks on the West.
The UN refugee agency said more than 1.1 million people have fled the fighting and registered with authorities since May 2, in a displacement that officials fear is the worst here since partition with India in 1947.
They join another 500,000 people who fled bouts of fighting between government forces and the Taliban in the northwest last year.
“It is really the worst situation in Swat, the worst I have seen in my life. I have no words to explain it,” said Salman Khan — not his real name — who arrived in Peshawar from Swat’s main town Mingora on Saturday.
Also Sunday, the death toll from a suspected US missile strike in the northwest’s semi-autonomous tribal region of North Waziristan near the Afghan border rose to 28, security officials said.
The United States has put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda, but Pakistan publicly opposes drone attacks, saying they violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the populace.
Ousted Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf said Sunday he may return to public life if his country remains “in trouble”.
In a CNN interview broadcast Sunday, Musharraf blamed Afghanistan as the source of Pakistan’s problems, as the civilian government that replaced his regime struggles to contain the encroaching Taliban.
He said a ban on his participation in politics would expire in November and stressed: “We’re not running for office in six months.”