PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistani jets and helicopters on Monday bombarded militant targets in Swat, where troops entered strategic towns in a pincer thrust towards the Taliban-held capital of the northwest valley.
Pakistan’s deadly offensive against Taliban fighters entered a fourth week Monday with troops battling on three fronts in the districts of Lower Dir, Buner and Swat where more than 1.1 million people have been displaced.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani convened a cross-party conference in Islamabad, reiterating calls for the Taliban to disarm in what he has called a fight to “eliminate” Islamist militants threatening the nation’s sovereignty.
Fighter jets and attack helicopters pounded militant hideouts and supply lines in Swat, once a tourist destination popular with Westerners until two years ago, when it was plunged into a Taliban insurgency to enforce sharia law.
The military says its troops are closing in on Mingora, the capital of Swat under Taliban control, and have issued a map showing security forces in a pincer movement of troops pushing down from the north and up from the south.
Pakistan said Sunday that ground troops had moved into the Taliban-held towns of Kanju, two kilometres (one mile) from Mingora, and Matta, further to the north, where officials said only that operations were “in progress”.
“Fighter jets and helicopter gunships targeted hideouts of Taliban militants in Peochar and Takhta Bund areas in Swat on Monday morning,” one military official in the region told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He said helicopter gunships were also shelling suspected militant hideouts in the Fizaghat area, four kilometres (two miles) northeast of Mingora, indicating that government troops were closing in on the Swat capital.
Another security official confirmed shelling against suspected militant hideouts in Peochar and Takhta Bund, which he described as the main supply route for Taliban holed up in Mingora.
Pakistani authorities say more than 1,000 militants and at least 46 soldiers have been killed in a three-pronged onslaught launched in the northwest districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8.
The military says up to 15,000 troops were taking on about 4,000 well-armed fighters in Swat, where Islamabad has ordered a battle to “eliminate” Islamist militants, branded by Washington the greatest terror threat to the West.
Islamabad ordered the offensive under mounting US pressure after the insurgents took up positions just 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Pakistani capital, having broken out of their hub in Swat.
The UN refugee agency said more than 1.1 million people have fled the fighting and registered with authorities since May 2, in a displacement that officials fear is the worst here since partition from India in 1947.
They join another 500,000 people who fled bouts of fighting between government forces and the Taliban in the northwest last year.
There are concerns that the army campaign — including artillery bombardment, attacks by helicopter gunships and commandos dropped behind Taliban lines — will grow more and more unpopular among Pakistan civilians.
Prominent defence analyst Talat Masood said it would be a long haul to clear and permanently secure all of Malakand, home to three million people and which the government put under sharia law earlier this year to quell the insurgency.
“It will take a few months to clear up the whole of Malakand. Counter-insurgency is not easy but the army is very interested in doing the job as quickly as possible,” he told AFP.
“It will take time to normalise the place, to install a police and civilian set-up after the operation. The army will have to ensure the insurgents are completely pushed back and eliminated,” he added.