By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD, June 5 (Reuters) - Pakistan’s army had ”turned the tide“ against Taliban fighters and aimed to completely eradicate them from the Swat valley, the army chief said, ahead of a meeting with U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke on Friday.
On Thursday, hours after President Barack Obama’s point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan visited Mardan district to see camps set up for some of the 2.5 million people who fled the conflict zone, militants shot dead five police and a soldier after first targetting a convoy with a roadside bomb.
Pakistan launched an offensive to expel Taliban militants from Swat last month in a move welcomed by Western allies worried that the nuclear-armed country was sliding into chaos.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Friday that suicide bombers had been caught in the capital of Islamabad, where Holbrooke was due to meet army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani at the end of a three-day visit.
Kayani said his forces had snuffed out ”organised resistance in Swat’s towns and along roads leading into its alpine valley.
“The tide in Swat has decisively turned,” a military statement issued on Thursday evening quoted him as saying.
He said the army would carry out operations on a “limited scale” to eliminate remaining militants’ hideouts, and run their leaders to ground.
That sense of resolve reflected President Asif Ali Zardari’s strong stand against militancy.
“It is the fight for our very survival. Future generations will not forgive us if we fail. We cannot afford to lose it. Defeat is not an option for us,” Zardari said in an interview with the Financial Times published on Friday.
The military says more than 1,200 militants and 90 soldiers have been killed in the Swat offensive, which has garnered wide support from major political parties, the public and media.
Holbrooke, who met with Zardari earlier, said the United States was encouraged by the firm action taken by Pakistan, an ally whose support is vital in a broader campaign to defeat al Qaeda and stabilise Afghanistan.
There is speculation that once Swat is under control, the army could switch its focus to South Waziristan, where four soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb on Friday.
The army retook Swat’s main town of Mingora last week, raising hopes that many of the displaced people will soon be allowed to return home.
Holbrooke has said the United States aimed to give Pakistan $200 million, in addition to $110 million already pledged, to help deal with the humanitarian crisis posed by the massive dislocation of population. He has also urged European and Islamic nations to do more to help.
The United Nations has launched an appeal to raise $543 million, but Manuel Bessler, head of the U.N. Organisation for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told reporters in Islamabad that a little more than a fifth had been received so far.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sanjeev Miglani)