PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — Pakistani troops remained locked in battles with Taliban militants in the northwest, as the military warned it could take up to 10 days to wrest back control of Swat valley’s capital.
Ground forces are fighting street-by-street with Taliban fighters in Mingora, the business and administrative hub of the scenic Swat region which has been ripped apart by a two-year insurgency by the Islamist extremists.
“It may take seven to 10 days to clear Mingora town of militants,” military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP.
“The operation may be a little slow to avoid civilian casualties, damage and destruction to property. There are also improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted in Mingora, and we have to clear these IEDs as well.”
Security forces have said a number of key squares and intersections in Mingora are now under their control, as the more than four-week-long offensive against the Taliban in the northwest enters a crucial phase.
A military official who did not want to be named said that six militants died overnight in Kabal town about 20 kilometres (12 miles) west of Mingora.
“They were trying to plant a bomb outside a mosque but it exploded on them,” the official told AFP. “The dead bodies of six armed militants are still lying near the mosque.”
He said Pakistan’s security forces were still battling on the streets of Mingora, which has seen Taliban fighters armed with guns and rocket launchers patrol the streets in the past weeks, according to residents who fled.
“Militants are retreating from different fronts but we are still receiving fire from some pockets of resistance,” the official said.
Another security official said: “Militants are on the run, their dead bodies are lying in streets.”
Although the military has bases inside Mingora, the town has been under effective Taliban control for weeks.
Helicopter gunships also shelled militant hideouts in Peochar and Malam Jabba — mountainous areas northwest of Mingora which are Taliban bastions.
Reporters and humanitarian workers have mostly been barred from visiting the conflict zone and telephone land lines and mobile signals appear to have been cut in Mingora, making the military’s claims impossible to verify.
Pakistan says more than 1,100 militants and 66 soldiers have died in the offensive launched in the districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8, but those tolls cannot be confirmed independently.
More than 1.7 million terrified civilians have already fled the military offensive and are huddled in camps or with relatives.
Fears are also growing for between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians that the military say are still trapped in Mingora, cowering behind closed doors with dwindling supplies of food and no access to medical care.
Security forces say 15,000 troops are now fighting 1,500 to 2,000 “hardcore militants” in Swat, where the government last month ordered a push to eradicate fighters who thrust to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.
The extremists’ advance came despite a February deal with a pro-Taliban cleric which put three million people in the northwest under sharia law in a bid to end the two-year Taliban insurgency — a deal which now lies in tatters.