Pak troops attack Taliban stronghold in Swat Valley

Peshawar: Pakistani commandos dropped into a key Taliban stronghold in the Swat Valley today, stepping up a punishing offensive against militants that has displaced more than 360,000 people.

Troops opened up a new front in the district’s northern mountains, the suspected stronghold of firebrand Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah and his top lieutenants behind a nearly two-year uprising that has devastated the area.

“Today Pakistan army heliborne troops have landed in the valley of Peochar and their mission is to conduct search and destroy operations,” Major General Athar Abbas told a news conference.

Military officials said the troop landings, around 65 km northwest of the main Swat town of Mingora, were the first such assault during the latest offensive to crush the Taliban in the district.

Attack helicopters also shelled suspected Taliban hideouts in Malam Jabba, once frequented for its pristine ski slopes, a military official said.

The military also reported heavy fighting at the Swat grid station, where Abbas said soldiers had been under siege for the last eight days.

Pakistan has pounded Taliban training camps, hideouts and logistic centres in the northwest for 16 days in what Islamabad calls a fight to eliminate militants, branded by Washington as the greatest terror threat to the West.

“So far, 751 militants have been killed in operations at Lower Dir, Buner and Swat,” said Abbas.

Of those, 402 have been killed in Swat, he added.

The spokesman said 29 security force personnel had been killed and 77 wounded in the offensives, which began in the district of Lower Dir on April 26 and were expanded to include neighbouring Buner on April 28. None of the death tolls are independently verifiable.

The military said last week that around 12,000-15,000 security forces were operating against 4,000 well-armed Taliban fighters in Swat, once a ski resort popular with Westerners but ravaged by the advancing Taliban menace.