Pak says swat town regained

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's military said Saturday troops had regained control of the main town in a key northwestern district from the Taliban, in what would be a significant milestone in a month-long offensive.

The announcement came three days after the military vowed to wipe out the Taliban from Mingora, the administrative and commercial hub of the mountainous Swat valley, a region that has been torn apart by a two-year Taliban uprising.

"Security forces control the city. The Mingora fight is finished," chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP.

"Mingora is now under full control of the army," the spokesman announced publicly at a news conference.

"We were expecting an intense fight between security forces and militants in Mingora but it did not happen," Abbas said.

He said the militants "showed stiff resistance in the beginning but fled the area after realising that it would be difficult for them to get out of Mingora if military completely outflanks them."

He said lower-ranking Taliban leaders had been killed but it was harder to get to the top leaders who had a network of hardcore militants around them.

"We are trying to target the top leadership of militants and they are constantly being followed," he added.

It is impossible to confirm independently information released by the army because the conflict area is a closed military zone.

Abbas emphasised that while Mingora was cleared, the battle was far from over in the valley, where government forces are locked in a fight against Taliban guerrillas, and in the neighbouring districts of Buner and Lower Dir.

"We're only talking about Mingora. Much more fight in Swat is left," the military spokesman told AFP. But without laying claim to Mingora, the largest town in the district, the military would be unable to claim victory in Swat.

Taliban extremists determined to enforce their harsh brand of Islamic law had for weeks patrolled the streets of the town, but a Taliban spokesman said recently that fighters were withdrawing to prevent civilian deaths.

The military said 25 militants, including two commanders, were killed and three arrested over the last 24 hours in Pakistan's determined offensive, concentrated in the northwest in a bid to eliminate Islamist fighters.

Pakistan has said that around 15,000 soldiers are fighting up to 2,000 Taliban fighters in Swat.

Cushioned in the hills, 160 kilometres (100 miles) northwest of Pakistan's national capital Islamabad, Mingora once bustled with activity, filled with local merchants and tourists who came to relax in the scenic mountains.

Residents trapped in Mingora have complained of no electricity, scarce food and water and gunfire reverberating through the sand-bagged streets.

The military said Saturday that 21 doctors had reached Mingora in a bid to re-open a hospital, that gas was in the process of being restored and repair work had begun on restoring electricity, which would take at least two weeks.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said his government had a comprehensive policy for the relief and rehabilitation of those displaced by the conflict, estimated by UN officials at 2.4 million people this month.

"We will take full care of displaced people, who have sacrificed for our future," Gilani said while addressing a ceremony in Islamabad.

Pakistan has called for one billion dollars to help the uprooted civilians rebuild their lives. Observers say it will cost the cash-strapped country far more in reconstruction and filling the vacuum after military operations.

Pakistan's latest offensive was unleashed under US pressure after armed Taliban advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad in April, sparking US warnings that they posed a threat to the existence of the country.

The military spokesman said Saturday that 1,217 militants and 81 soldiers had been killed since the air and ground operation began on April 26.

The military has released next to no information on civilian casualties, but many of the displaced tell of innocent relatives being killed in the offensive.

Pakistan has slapped a 600,000-dollar price on the head of a firebrand Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, wanted dead or alive, for masterminding the nearly two-year uprising in the valley to enforce sharia law.

Fazlullah led thousands of supporters, a mixture of hardcore ideologues and disenfranchised young men, in a brutal campaign that beheaded opponents, burned scores of schools and fought against government troops since November 2007.