Trapped Pak plea for way out

MINGORA: Pakistani jets screamed over a Taliban-controlled town Friday and bombed suspected militant positions as desperate residents appealed for a pause in the fighting so they could escape.

More than 45,000 people have fled the operation in the northwestern Swat Valley and surrounding districts that followed strong U.S. pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan to fight back against militants advancing toward the capital as a now-defunct peace deal crumbled.

Pakistan has launched at least a dozen operations in the border region in recent years, but most ended inconclusively and after massive destruction and significant civilian deaths. It remains a haven for al-Qaida and Taliban militants, foreign governments say.

To end one of those protracted offensives, the government signed a peace accord in Swat that provided for Islamic law in the region. But that deal began unraveling last month when Swat Taliban fighters moved into Buner, a neighboring district just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Islamabad.

Pakistan's prime minister appealed for international assistance late Thursday for the growing refugee crisis and vowed to defeat the militants in the latest operation.

"I appeal to the people of Pakistan to support the government and army at this crucial time," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a television address. "We pledge to eliminate the elements who have destroyed the peace and calm of the nation and wanted to take Pakistan hostage at gunpoint."

The military hailed signs of the public's mood shifting against the Taliban after the militants used the peace deal to regroup and advance.

"The public have seen their real face," Maj. Gen Athar Abbas said. "They realize their agenda goes much beyond Shariah (Islamic) courts. They have a design to expand."

Still, the pro-Western government will face a stiff task to keep a skeptical nation behind its security forces. The exodus from Swat adds to the more than 500,000 already displaced by fighting elsewhere in Pakistan's volatile border region with Afghanistan.

Military operations are taking place in three districts that stretch over some 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers). Much of the fighting has been in the Swat Valley's main city of Mingora, a militant hub that was home to around 360,000 people before the insurgency two years ago.

Many of those have fled the city, but tens of thousand remain. Some have said the Taliban are not allowing them to leave, perhaps because they want to use them as "human shields" and make the army unwilling to use force.

"We want to leave the city, but we cannot go out because of the fighting," said one resident, Hidayat Ullah. "We will be killed, our children will be killed, our women will be killed and these Taliban will escape."

"Kill terrorists, but don't harm us," he pleaded.

The military says that more than 150 militants and several soldiers have been killed since the offensive began last week. It has not given any figures for civilian deaths, but witness and local media say they have occurred. A hospital in Mardan just south of the battle zone on Thursday was treating 45 civilians with serious gunshot or shrapnel wounds.

Among the youngest patients was Chaman Ara, a 12-year-old girl with shrapnel wedged in her left leg. She said she was wounded last week when a mortar shell hit the truck taking her family and others out of Buner.

She said seven people died, including one of her cousins, and pointed to a nearby bed where the boy's wounded mother lay prone. "We mustn't tell her yet. Please don't tell her," she whispered.