PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistan closed in on the Taliban in the Swat district Monday, encircling a key town and thrusting into a strategic valley, as residents spoke of deprivations in the conflict zone.
Pakistan’s northwest campaign has moved into a sixth week since Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad, flouting a deal to put three million people under sharia law in exchange for peace.
The military last week declared Mingora, the main town in Swat, back under government control but aid workers and witnesses have underscored desperation in the city, where food and water are scarce, and electricity limited.
“Only a few shops are open, we are facing a severe shortage of food,” Mohammad Usman, an elderly man told AFP from Mingora.
Analysts warn that authorities must rapidly restore basic services after the guns fall silent to stop the Taliban from exploiting frustrations and poverty to re-fuel the insurgency, as has happened after previous military operations.
The United States, which has strongly backed the latest offensive, says Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants have carved out safe havens from swathes of northwest Pakistan, where they are plotting attacks on the West.
“I congratulate the army for taking control of the city,” another resident, Anwar Khan, told AFP from Mingora, where television footage showed women in burqas carrying children out of town.
“Now we’re happy but please relax the curfew indefinitely.”
Red Cross officials who visited Swat said they were “gravely concerned” over the humanitarian situation owing to problems with running water, food, electricity and communications, and disturbed by conditions at one hospital.
“The handful of hospital staff left are struggling to work without any water, electricity or supplies,” said Daniel O’Malley.
“They simply cannot cope with the influx of patients.”
Pakistan has not released civilian casualty statistics during the offensive, saying only that more than 1,200 militants and around 90 soldiers have died.
The authorities last week sent a team of medics to Mingora, where up to 20,000 people were believed to have been stranded in the latter stages.
UN officials say around 2.4 million people fled the fighting, in what rights groups call the largest internal displacement in more than half a century.
Military officials said troops were closing in Monday on the northern Swat town of Charbagh and hunting top Taliban leaders in the mountains.
Pakistan has slapped a 600,000-dollar price on the head of firebrand Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, wanted dead or alive, for masterminding the nearly two-year uprising in the valley to enforce sharia law.
“Security forces have encircled Charbagh town where some top Taliban commanders are holed up,” a senior military official told AFP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Troops on Saturday dropped leaflets, warning people to evacuate ahead of possible operations and a curfew was relaxed Sunday to enable civilians to leave the area, which has a population of 20,000-25,000, he said.
Charbagh lies 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Mingora and has been described as one of the most important Taliban strongholds in the valley.
The military said security forces entered Kalam, a strategic valley around 90 kilometres north of Mingora, where operations were under way.
A senior Pakistani defence ministry official, Syed Athar Ali, said Sunday that the offensive could end within days with “only five to 10 percent of the job” remaining, although the military later distanced itself from the remark.
Fears of revenge attacks are also growing with more than 80 people killed in bombings since the operation was launched on April 26.
A car bomb ripped through a bus stop in the garrison town of Kohat, in northwest Pakistan, killing two people and wounding up to 18 others on Monday.