Pakistan: troops attack Taliban

PESHAWAR: Pakistani commandos have dropped into a Taliban stronghold in Swat valley , stepping up a punishing offensive against militants that has now displaced more than half a million people.

Frightened civilians have streamed out of three northwest districts ripped apart by fighting, with the UN refugee agency announcing that 501,496 stranded people had registered with authorities since May 2.

In response to the civilian upheaval Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, has appealed for global aid for those people displaced by the fighting.

"We're appealing to the world, myself and the (UN) secretary general... to draw attention on the human catastrophe that is taking place," Zardari told reporters on Tuesday after conferring with UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

"They (civilians) are losing their crops, they're losing their earnings, their livelihood and their homes, so we want the world to help us," he added.

News of Zardari's appeal comes as airborne troops opened a new front in Swat's northern mountains on Tuesday, the suspected stronghold of firebrand Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah and his top aides who have been behind a nearly two-year uprising that has devastated the area.

"Today Pakistan army heli-borne 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 kilometres (40 miles) northwest of the main Swat town of Mingora, were the first such assault during the latest US-backed offensive to crush the Taliban in the district.

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

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 late last month.

In Buner, artillery shelling killed 13 militants late Tuesday, a security spokesman said. None of the death tolls are independently verifiable.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis gripping Pakistan worsened Tuesday, as the number of registered displaced jumped from just over 360,000 late Sunday to half a million, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said.

"This is only a portion of people who would have fled," said Ariane Rummery, a UNHCR spokeswoman, attributing the leap in those fleeing to a brief lifting of a curfew in Swat on Sunday.

The new refugees join another 500,000 civilians who fled bouts of fighting in Pakistan's troubled North West Frontier Province last year.

Pakistan's military said the fresh displacements pushed to 1.3 million the total number displaced by the fighting in the northwest.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said it was doubling its shipments of emergency food to the newly displaced, but warned that more funds were needed to feed the stranded over the next two to three months.

Rights groups urged Pakistan and the Taliban to avoid civilian casualties, and local doctors who have fled the onslaught say Swat's main hospital is closed and that the wounded cannot be treated there because there is no electricity.

"Winning the war but also the peace in Swat can only be achieved by minimising civilian suffering," said Brad Adams, Asia director at the US-based Human Rights Watch.

The military has relied heavily on helicopter gunships, fighter jets and artillery during the offensive, but insisted Tuesday it was taking all possible measures to avoid collateral damage and had avoided populated areas.

Ahmad Ali, 24, told AFP by telephone that armed Taliban were prowling the streets of Mingora and were firing on security forces with mortar rounds.

"I've never even seen a single soldier during curfew hours," he said.

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

Pakistani troops have conducted operations against militants in parts of North West Frontier Province over the past two years, and for around six years in the surrounding semi-autonomous tribal belt on the border with Afghanistan.

Extremist attacks have killed at least 1,800 people across nuclear-armed Pakistan in less than two years and around 2,000 soldiers have died in battles with Islamist militants since 2002.