MINGORA, Pakistan, (Reuters) – Pakistan’s military said on Friday it had killed 143 militants over the previous 24 hours in fighting in the Islamist bastion of Swat.
The struggle in the valley 130 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad has become a test of Pakistan’s resolve to fight a growing Taliban insurgency alarming the United States.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on Thursday ordered the army to strike at “militants and terrorists” he said were trying to hold the country hostage at gunpoint.
“Approximately 143 militants have been reported killed in Swat valley,” military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told a news briefing at army headquarters in Rawalpindi. There was no independent confirmation of the toll. “On the directive of the government, the army is now engaged in a full-scale operation to eliminate the militants,” he said. “They are on the run and trying to block exodus of civilians from the area,” Abbas said, warning that the operation was difficult and declining to give it a timeline.
Earlier, military officials had said helicopter gunships, fighters and troops were all involved in Swat operations on Friday, against roughly 4,000 to 5,000 militants. Abbas said up to 15,000 troops were taking part.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in talks in Washington this week, assured U.S. President Barack Obama of Islamabad’s commitment to defeating al Qaeda and its allies.
Pakistan’s efforts against militants based near the border with Afghanistan are seen as vital to defeating the Afghan insurgency.
Militant violence in areas closer to Islamabad like Swat have raised concern for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s stability.
Pakistani stocks ended a marginal 0.05 percent, or 3.85 points, up at 7,129.51 on Friday, in low volume after early gains were erased by investors worried about the fighting, dealers said.
In Geneva, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern for the estimated million people displaced by the fighting and the International Committee of the Red Cross said a humanitarian crisis was intensifying.
UNICEF raised particular worries about children in the area who have witnessed violence, been forced from their homes, or who are unable to go to school or get medical care.
The view of at least some Pakistanis toward the fighting seemed to be shifting. In the past many were opposed to action, saying Washington wanted Islamabad to be a proxy in what was essentially a U.S. battle. But an increasing number view the militants as a threat which must be confronted.
“If the government is serious in eliminating militants from Swat then we will support the military operation,” said Khalid Khan, a social worker and resident of Dheri Baba in Swat. “We are ready to make every sacrifice if the government really means business this time,” said Gul Omer, a poultry trader, referring to previous, inconclusive military actions that were followed by a peace deal that has now collapsed.
If the offensive causes many civilian casualties, attitudes could change. The growing refugee burden could also sour sentiment.
Gilani said the government would not bow before terrorists and would force them to lay down their arms.
Authorities agreed in February to a Taliban demand for Islamic sharia law in the valley but the militants refused to disarm and pushed out of Swat closer to the capital.