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Helicopters attack Pakistani militants | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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MINGORA, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan attacked Taliban militants with helicopter gunships and mortar rounds in a northwestern region Wednesday, as residents hunkered down in their homes ahead of an expected major offensive in the extremist stronghold, witnesses and officials said.

The army action in the Swat Valley will likely please Washington, which has been urging Pakistan to crack down on militants blamed for rising violence at home and in Afghanistan. But it was unclear whether the military, which is not trained for guerrilla warfare, planned the kind of sustained operation likely needed to defeat the insurgents.

Since fighting broke out Tuesday, thousands of men, women and children have fled the region’s town of Mingora and surrounding districts, fearing a major military operation.

The government said it believes refugees could reach 500,000.

The clashes followed the collapse of a 3-month-old truce in Swat that was widely criticized in the West as a surrender to the militants, who had fought the army to a standstill in two years of clashes that saw hundreds of civilian casualties.

An Associated Press reporter in Mingora said gun and mortar fire started Tuesday and continued through the night into Wednesday. An intelligence official said helicopters and mortar fire were pounding militant positions in Mingora and other parts of Swat.

“The situation is very tense there. Taliban are present at the homes of local residents. They are also present at strategic positions. They are using light weapons to ambush troops,” said the official on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.

There was no immediate word on casualties. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas declined to say whether the events heralded the start of major operations, saying only that “all the contingency plans are worked out” for carrying one out.

The developments brought Islamabad’s faltering campaign against militancy into sharp focus as President Asif Ali Zardari was preparing for talks Wednesday in Washington with President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on how best to counter an increasingly overlapping spectrum of extremist groups behind surging violence in the neighboring countries.

The Obama administration hopes to build a strong and lasting regional alliance, linking success in Afghanistan with security in Pakistan. Toward that end, the administration is encouraging Pakistan to confront, not make peace with, the Taliban and other militants.

“We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies,” Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a congressional committee Tuesday. “We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support and involvement.”

In an interview with CNN, Zardari defended his country’s ability to fight the militants within its borders. “It doesn’t work like that. They can’t take over,” he said. “How can they take over?”

It is uncertain whether the Pakistani public has the stomach for a long battle in Swat. Militants have had time to rest and reinforce their positions since the truce took effect, and any operation would involve fierce fighting in urban areas and would likely cause significant civilian casualties and property damage.

In recent days, however, there have been signs the mood toward the Taliban is changing. Many politicians, commentators and religious leaders now say the movement’s true nature was exposed by its refusal to go along with the peace deal despite the government’s best efforts.

Fearing war could consume the region, thousands fled the main Swat town of Mingora on Tuesday. Refugees clambered onto the roofs of buses after seats and floors filled up.

Children and adults alike carried belongings on their heads and backs.

“I do not have any destination. I only have an aim, to escape from here,” said Afzal Khan, 65, who was waiting for a bus with his wife and nine children. “It is like doomsday here. It is like hell.”

Shafi Ullah, a student, said the whole town was fleeing. “Can you hear the explosions? Can you hear the gunshots?” he said, pointing to a part of town where fighting was continuing.

Pakistan agreed to a truce in the valley and surrounding districts in February. As part of the agreement, the government imposed Islamic law last month in the hope that insurgents would lay down their arms, something they did not do.

Last week, the Taliban moved from their stronghold in the valley into Buner, a district just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital. That caused alarm at home and abroad.

The army responded with an offensive it says has killed more than 100 militants and was “progressing smoothly” Tuesday, according to a brief statement. It was unclear how many militants remained in Swat.