Taliban 'on the run': Pak army

PESHAWAR: Pakistan's military said Saturday a full-scale offensive in the northwest has put militants on the back foot following a pledge from President Asif Ali Zardari to eliminate the Taliban.

Warplanes pounded rebel hideouts in the Swat valley, an ex-ski resort where up to 15,000 security forces have been deployed under orders to crush extremists in an escalating conflict that has displaced hundreds of thousands.

"They are on the run," the army said in a statement, without making clear exactly how much progress it had made in driving militants from their positions.

But the statement added that Taliban fighters were "trying to block the exodus of innocent civilians by preventing their departure through coercion, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), road blocks with trees and even (making them) hostages".

Meanwhile a suspected US drone fired missiles at a compound used by militants in the region, causing casualties, officials said.

The strike on Saturday took place at a compound in the restive South Waziristan tribal district, bordering Afghanistan, two security officials said.

"I can confirm a missile strike at a compound at Tabbi Langar Khel (village)," one of the security officials told AFP.

"According to initial reports there could be casualties," the official said, adding that insurgents were active in the area where missile strike took place.

The military said Friday an air and ground offensive to crush the Taliban in the northwest killed more than 140 militants.

It was impossible to confirm the death tolls independently, given ongoing operations across three districts which began late last month when the hardline insurgents advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.

Meanwhile, fresh troops were entering the Malakand district which neighbours Swat valley, a local military official told AFP.

People fleeing the area, however, have accused the military of also killing civilians in the fierce bombardment.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who is on a state visit to the United States, has pledged to eliminate the Taliban.

"This is an offensive -- this is war. If they kill our soldiers, then we do the same," Zardari told PBS public television Friday, during a visit to Washington.

Pressed on whether Pakistan's stated goal of "eliminating" militants meant killing them, Zardari replied: "Eliminate means exactly what it means." The UN refugee agency has warned up to one million people have been displaced in northwest Pakistan, with tens of thousands streaming out of Buner, Lower Dir and Swat, registering in camps or sheltering with families.

The government has said it was bracing to cope with half a million people displaced by the fighting.

Zardari arrived in Washington for talks Wednesday with US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on stepping up the fight against extremists seen as a growing threat in both countries.

Obama has placed Pakistan at the heart of the struggle against Al-Qaeda, and has branded extremists in the northwest as the biggest terror threat facing the West.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was consulting his cabinet on Saturday on "the overall political and security situation in the country," an official from premier's secretariat told AFP.

The fighting has sunk a controversial February deal between the government and an Islamist hardliner that aimed to put three million people under sharia law in a bid to end the Taliban uprising.

Critics said the February deal emboldened the Taliban, and have welcomed the renewed military offensive, which also has broad public support.

They have warned that Pakistan must move to rebuild lives shattered by the offensive if it is to be a success.

The fresh offensive was launched after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani late Thursday appealed for unity against extremists whom he said were risking the sovereignty of the nuclear-armed nation and violated the peace deal.