PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Pakistan said troops were locked in bloody street battles with Taliban fighters in the northwest as rival politicians united behind the offensive to eliminate Islamist militants.
Pakistan’s deadly operation against Taliban fighters entered a fourth week on Monday as jets and helicopters pounded militant targets, and infantry troops fought street battles in towns of the Swat district.
Nearly 1.5 million people have been displaced in the massive onslaught, waged under tough US pressure to clamp down on militants in the northwest of the country which Washington branded the greatest terror threat to the West.
Fighter jets and attack helicopters pounded militant hideouts and supply lines in Swat, once a tourist destination popular with Westerners until two years ago, when it was plunged into a Taliban insurgency to enforce sharia law.
The military says its troops are closing in on Mingora, the capital of Swat under Taliban control, and have issued a map showing security forces in a pincer movement of troops pushing down from the north and up from the south.
It reported “fierce clashes” in different places and said security forces were locked in street fighting in the Taliban-held towns of Kanju, two kilometres (one mile) from Mingora, and Matta, further to the north.
“The ground offensive has now started in the cities and the towns, before that we were fighting in the countryside,” military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a news conference.
“We are closing towards Mingora. We have started the street fighting, the urban warfare in Matta… And now the infantry is going into the cities and the towns,” Abbas told a news conference.
He said 27 militants and three soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours, and that forces were advancing in Peochar, the suspected bastion of Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah in a two year uprising to enforce sharia law.
Pakistani authorities say more than 1,000 militants and at least 49 soldiers have been killed in a three-pronged onslaught launched in the northwest districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8.
Pakistan’s rival politicians united behind an offensive to “eliminate” the Taliban on Monday with troops locked in urban combat in a thrust towards Mingora, the rebel-held capital of Swat.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani won support at a cross-party conference in Islamabad, reiterating calls for the Taliban to disarm in what he has called a fight to “eliminate” Islamist militants threatening the nation’s sovereignty.
Refugees from the cool, mountainous conflict zone have suffered in the stifling heat of the lowlands while crowding into camps or with relatives, and many decided to return home Monday as officials said battles were subsiding.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said people were returning to their homes in Buner and the semi-autonomous tribal area of Bajaur, where the military launched operations last August, putting the figure at around 20,000.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Sunday that the government had regained control in Lower Dir and Buner, and urged the displaced to return.
“It is too hot in Peshawar, it is impossible for my kids to live in the sizzling weather,” 55-year-old Janbaz told AFP by telephone as he headed back to his hometown just west of Swat.
The military says up to 15,000 troops were taking on about 4,000 well-armed fighters in Swat.
Islamabad ordered the offensive under mounting US pressure after the insurgents took up positions just 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Pakistani capital, having broken out of their hub in Swat.
The UN refugee agency said more than two million people have fled fighting in northwest Pakistan since August 2008 in a displacement that officials fear is the worst here since partition from India in 1947.
That number includes 1.45 million people registered as displaced during the Pakistani army’s offensive against militants since May 2.
The US Defense Department said Monday it was drawing up preliminary plans to ferry food, water and tents to help them.
Meanwhile the US said Monday it was not helping Pakistan to expand its nuclear arsenal.
“I am not aware of any US aid that’s gone towards nuclear weapons,” US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told a gathering at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.
CIA director Leon Panetta said US intelligence officials did not know the exact whereabouts of all Pakistan’s nuclear weapons but believed they were safe from the Taliban.
Speaking in Los Angeles, the Central Intelligence Agency chief said Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was “pretty secure” amid concerns that the weapons could possibly fall into the hands of Taliban insurgents.
“We don’t have frankly the intelligence to know where they are all located but we do track the Pakistanis,” Panetta said when asked if the US knew where Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were located.
“Right now we are confident that the Pakistanis do have a pretty secure approach to trying to protect these weapons. But it is something that we continue to watch because obviously the last thing we want is for the Taliban to have access to nuclear weapons in Pakistan.”