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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It is unclear if Pakistan's offensive in Swat has killed off Taliban insurgents or simply scattered them, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday, adding a note of caution to U.S. praise for the effort.
After being accused by the United States of "abdicating" to a Taliban insurgency that has heightened concerns about nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability, the Pakistani government launched an offensive in Swat in late April and says it has since killed 1,800 militants.
Independent estimates are not available and critics say few guerrilla leaders have been eliminated, making it possible for the insurgents to regroup.
"We don't know exactly to what extent the Pakistani army dispersed or destroyed the enemy," Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters after returning from a trip to the two countries.
"The test of this operation is, of course, when the refugees return. Can they go home? Are they safe? And we're just going to have to wait and see," he added.
Security forces are nearing the end of an operation launched close to three months ago in the Swat valley and the nearby districts of Buner and Lower Dir, but they still face pockets of resistance in some areas.
Close to 2 million people were displaced by the fighting, and authorities have started helping many of them return home.
Holbrooke praised Islamabad for shifting troops from its eastern border, where they face Pakistan's traditional enemy India, and sending them to the western border, where the United States has long wanted greater Pakistani involvement to try to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan and to destroy al Qaeda.
Speaking as she met Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Phuket, Thailand, on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as is typical of U.S. officials, had little but praise for Pakistan's efforts.
"I must say ... that the progress that your government is making in this effort, of the significant return of people back to their homes because of the success of the government policy and military action, has been encouraging and impressive," Clinton said as she met Qureshi at an Asia-Pacific gathering.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; editing by Mohammad Zargham