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Pakistan: Troops battle Taliban in main Swat town | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistani security forces have entered the main town in a northwestern valley where Taliban fighters are holed up, engaging the militants in fierce street fights, the army’s top spokesman said Saturday.

Capturing the town of Mingora is critical to Pakistani efforts to regain the Swat Valley and prevent it from being a safe haven for insurgents increasingly threatening the Muslim nation’s stability. It could prove a major test for a military more geared toward conventional warfare on plains than bloody urban battles.

Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas also told reporters Saturday that at least 17 alleged militants had been killed over the previous 24 hours in the offensive.

The military operation has strong support from Washington. Insurgents in northwestern Pakistan also launch attacks across the border on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The military says more than 1,000 suspected insurgents have died so far in the month-old offensive, figures nearly impossible to verify independently because of limited access to the region.

“Street fights have begun,” Abbas said. “It is a difficult operation because we have to make a house-to-house search. We have cleared some of the area in the city.”

The offensive in Swat and surrounding areas has triggered an exodus of nearly 1.9 million refugees, more than 160,000 to camps and many of the rest to stay with relatives, friends or in rented rooms.

Some fear that the generally broad public support for the military campaign could drain away if the refugees’ plight worsens or if the army gets bogged down too long. The U.N. on Friday appealed for $543 million to provide food, schooling and health care to the displaced.

Also Saturday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani downplayed the chances the army would expand the offensive to the lawless, semiautonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan where militants have long had strongholds.

Reports that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said such an expansion was in the works have already led some families to leave the South Waziristan tribal area, the main base of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud. However, many believe it would be difficult for the army to go into another territory before it finishes clearing the Taliban from Swat, which could take months.

“It is not like this,” Gilani said in response to a reporter’s question about a possible new front in the offensive. “We are not foolish to do it everywhere.” Still, Gilani insisted the government would not allow anyone to challenge its authority.