ISLAMABAD: Pakistani troops on Saturday stormed into the main town in the Swat valley and fought street battles in a bid to wrest the capital of the northwest from Taliban control, the military said.
Chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said parts of Mingora had already been cleared and that 17 militants, including an important commander, had been killed.
The ground assault on Mingora, a city with an estimated population of around 300,000 — most of whom have fled — marks the most crucial phase of the military’s blistering offensive against the Taliban in the scenic valley.
Although the military has bases inside Mingora, the town has been under effective Taliban control. As the administrative and business hub of the district, its capture is essential for the army to declare victory in Swat.
Pakistan says 15,000 troops in Swat are now fighting 1,500-2,000 “hardcore militants”, nearly a month after ordering a battle to eradicate fighters who advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the national capital.
“Today the most important phase of operation Rah-e-Rast, the clearance of Mingora, has commenced,” said Abbas.
“In the last 24 hours, security forces have entered Mingora; 17 miscreant-terrorists, including an important miscreant commander were killed,” the spokesman told a news conference in Islamabad.
There were intense exchanges of fire, one would-be suicide bomber was shot dead and another “suicide vehicle” rigged with explosives had been destroyed during the operation, the military said.
Pakistani troops had been tightening their encirclement of the city for days and Abbas said on Saturday that militant supplies were cut off, but the fighting in Mingora is likely to heighten concerns about civilian casualties.
Attempts to contact local residents by telephone were impossible on Saturday with both mobile and landline networks down.
Abbas estimated that 10,000-20,000 civilians remained in Mingora, the capital of the stunning mountainous district once popular with tourists but ripped apart by a two-year Taliban insurgency.
“We are trying our best that there should be minimum civilian losses and that’s why the operation is slow,” said Abbas.
“The communication with the town of Kalam remains cut off, but we have received reports from the nearby town of Fatahpur, where troops are present, that there is food shortage,” Abbas said.
“Food supplies for residents on civilian trucks are on the way to Kalam,” Abbas said.
Commanding officers have stressed that soldiers are under orders to avoid civilian casualties and not to use artillery or air strikes in built-up areas.
Pakistan says other towns in Swat — Matta and Khawazakhela — have already been cleared without civilian casualties or damage.
The United Nations on Friday appealed for 543 million dollars to help 1.7 million people displaced by the offensive, on top of 550,000 people who have fled violence in the northwest since August last year.
The military says 1,095 militants and 63 soldiers have died in the onslaught launched in the districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8, but those tolls cannot be confirmed independently.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown voiced support Saturday for Pakistan’s “vital” drive against the Taliban, pledging more aid to support those displaced by the fighting.
But despite fears that a full-scale onslaught in Mingora could spark a bloodbath, some analysts doubted that the Taliban would fight to the end.
“If they (the militants) are not too many, then they will not indulge in street fights, but try to inflict maximum damage on the army in a hit-and-run manner,” said Rahimullah Yousafzai, analyst and expert on the northwest.
“In any case, civilians are caught in between the security forces and militants and unfortunately they are going to suffer,” he said.
US-based Human Rights Watch earlier this week quoted residents as saying the Taliban had mined Mingora and “prevented many civilians from fleeing, using them as ‘human shields’ to deter attack”.
The group also said that Pakistani aerial and artillery attacks had caused a high loss of civilian life — claims flatly denied by the army.