700 rebels killed: Pak

MARDAN: Pakistani warplanes bombed suspected militant positions in a stronghold close to the capital today, pressing ahead with a fierce offensive the government claimed had killed 700 insurgents and put the Taliban on the run.

The United Nations said 360,600 refugees had fled Swat and neighbouring Dir and Buner districts since operations began last week. That number is on top of some 500,000 people displaced by past offensives — a major humanitarian challenge for the weak government that could test public support for the offensive.

In one camp in the town of Mardan, just south of the battle zone, hundreds of displaced people waited for hours to register with the UN, something they must do before getting tents, food and medical treatment.

“In this camp, I am not seeing anything that will give us much relief,” said a new arrival, Iftikiar Khan, fearing the facilities there were insufficient. Like most of those fleeing, Khan said he ultimately hoped to stay with relatives.

Islamabad’s tough military response has earned praise from the US, which wants al-Qaida and Taliban militants rooted out from havens where they can plan attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as destabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The military launched the offensive after the insurgents in Swat used a peace deal to impose their reign in other neighbouring areas, including a stretch just 100 kilometres from the capital, Islamabad.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said 700 militants had been killed around Swat in the last four days Addressing parliament, PM Yousuf Raza Gilani said the army had cleared the region’s main town, Mingora, of mines planted by the

insurgents. “The operation will continue until the last Talib,” Malik said in the capital, Islamabad. “We haven’t given them a chance. They are on the run. They were not expecting such an offensive.” Malik’s casualty number - which exceeds those given by the military yesterday by at least 200 — and his claims of success could not be independently verified. The military is restricting access to the battlefields and many local journalists have also left. The government has not given figures for civilian casualties, but accounts from refugees suggest they are significant.

Jawad Khan, a university student who lives in the Kabal area of Swat, said jets bombed the nearby Dhada Hara village this morning. “I saw smoke and dust rising from the village,” Khan said, adding he didn’t know about casualties because of curfew restrictions, which have been enforced again after being briefly lifted yesterday to allow more civilians to flee.

A police official in Mingora said jets bombed the Matta area of Swat today as well.

The official said he was confined to his station but could see a decapitated body lying outside along a road where a clash between military forces and the Taliban yesterday left six militants dead.

Swat lies near the Afghan border as well as the wild Pakistani tribal areas, where al-Qaida and the Taliban have strongholds.