MINGORA, Pakistan, (AP) – Corpses lay exposed in the Swat Valley’s main town on Sunday, and residents rushed to mostly empty markets in search of food a day after the military claimed to have retaken the city from the Taliban.
Elsewhere in the northwest, officials said scores of militants were killed in fighting with soldiers that could signal Pakistan is expanding the offensive from Swat into other parts of the northwestern border region with Afghanistan.
Many buildings were damaged in parts of Mingora seen by The Associated Press, but not badly. Two decomposing bodies, apparently those of insurgents, lay unburied in a cemetery, while a third charred corpse lay close to a shopping mall. The smell of explosives hung in the air.
“We have been starving for many days. We have been cooking tree leaves to keep ourselves alive. Thank God it is over,” said Afzal Khan. “We need food, we need help. We want peace.”
Pakistan launched an offensive against militants in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts last month after they violated the terms of a cease-fire and advanced into a region close to the capital, Islamabad.
Speaking in Singapore, Pakistan’s defense secretary predicted the army would retake the whole Swat region in “two to three days,” giving hope some of the estimated 3 million refugees may soon be able to return home. Pakistan’s military spokesman said that assessment was overly optimistic.
The Swat offensive has earned Western praise, as troops have regained large swaths of the region from an estimated 4,000 militants, but several places remain under militant control.
In South Waziristan, insurgents attacked an army convoy Saturday night in Tiarza village in South Waziristan, sparking battles in various parts of the region, two intelligence officials said. They estimated that 50 militants and two soldiers were killed.
Early Sunday, militants fired more than a dozen missiles at an army camp in South Waziristan’s Jandola area. The military retaliated using artillery, and some troops moved into a Taliban-held village to force out the armed Islamist extremists.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media. The information could not be independently verified because of limited access to the remote area, and other officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Most of Mingora’s around 375,000 residents fled before or during the offensive. The military briefly lifted a curfew Sunday, allowing some of the 20,000 or so that remained to buy provisions in the few shops that were open.
Ali Rehman said he had not left his house for 25 days.
“I never knew who was fighting and who was being killed,” he said, clutching two bags of flour. “I need help to keep my family alive because I do not have any source of income anymore.”
Authorities said they were distributing aid to people trapped in Mingora, and water and gas supplies were being restored. An emergency medical team had been flown in and would work to reopen the town’s hospital and treat civilians wounded in the fighting, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
But it will be at least two weeks before power is back on, and refugees are not yet being encouraged to return home, he added.
The Taliban warned they would attack Pakistani cities in retaliation for the Swat offensive. They claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s gun and suicide bomb attack in the eastern city of Lahore that killed at least 30 people. A day later, three suicide bombings killed at least 14 people in two cities in the northwest.
Abbas said Saturday that 1,217 militants have been killed in the Swat offensive and 79 arrested, and 81 soldiers have died — figures that cannot be independently verified. The military has not released civilian casualty numbers and says all care is being taken to protect the innocent.