KOTA, Pakistan/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pakistan has been roused to fight the “existential threat” of a growing Islamist insurgency, the top U.S. commander for the Afghan-Pakistan war theater said on Sunday, as Islamabad intensified an offensive against Taliban militants.
Army General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said Pakistan’s fierce campaign against the Taliban in the Swat valley was a sign its political leaders, people and military were united against the Islamist fighters.
“The actions of the Pakistani Taliban ... seem to have galvanized all of Pakistan,” he told the “Fox News Sunday” program.
“Certainly the next few weeks will be very important in this effort to roll back, if you will, this existential threat — a true threat to Pakistan’s very existence that has been posed by the Pakistani Taliban.”
Nuclear-armed Pakistan hopes to stop a Taliban insurgency with its offensive in Swat, a former tourist enclave about 130 km (80 miles) from Islamabad, after U.S. criticism that the government was failing to act against the militants.
Pakistan’s military ordered people out of parts of the valley on Sunday, temporarily relaxing a curfew to allow civilians to flee fighting.
Up to 200 militants had been killed in Swat and the neighboring Shangla district in the past 24 hours, the military said. The figure could not be independently confirmed.
About 200,000 people have left Swat in recent days and, in all, about 500,000 are expected to flee. They join 555,000 people displaced earlier from Swat and other areas because of fighting since August.
“Everybody wants to get out of this hell,” Zubair Khan, a resident of Mingora, the valley’s main town, said by telephone. “Some are driving out while many are just on foot. They don’t know where they’re heading but staying here just means death.”
The army went on a full-scale offensive on Thursday after the government ordered troops to flush out militants from the Taliban stronghold.
The offensive was launched while President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was in Washington assuring a nervous United States that his government was committed to fighting militancy.
Zardari told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program Pakistan was fighting a “war of our existence” against an Islamist movement that grew from the 1980s anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.
He described the Taliban as “a kind of a cancer, created by both of us, Pakistan and America” but disputed assertions his country faced collapse.
“We need to find a strategy where the world gets together against this threat because it’s not Pakistan-specific. It’s not Afghanistan-specific,” said Zardari.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who also was in Washington, told NBC that talks with Zardari made him “a lot more confident and a lot more hopeful” Pakistan was on the same page as Afghanistan and the United States in fighting the Taliban.
Most Pakistani political parties and many members of the public support the offensive, although that could change if the displaced are seen to be suffering unduly or if many civilians are killed.
Fighting had intensified two days before the offensive was launched, triggering a civilian exodus as a February peace pact collapsed. But concern has been growing for those trapped and unable to move because of the curfew.
Helicopters and warplanes targeted militant hideouts in Mingora and other areas in Swat and Shangla on Sunday, the military said. Two soldiers had died, it said.
“It’s a tough battle,” said military spokesman Nasir Khan. “They’re operating in small groups. They don’t fight a pitched battle but we’re closing in on them, squeezing them, and have cut their supply lines.”
The Taliban had also planted bombs along roads and in Mingora to inflict civilian casualties and then put the blame on security forces, the military said.
Taliban spokesmen were not available for comment.
The army ordered civilians out of four districts to clear the way for attacks on militants and lifted a curfew for nine hours. Residents said transport was scarce because the military was not letting vehicles into the valley for fear the militants might try to send in reinforcements.
Vehicle operators were demanding ever higher fares.
“How can I take my kids, wife and old mother to a safer place? Nobody thinks of humanity, money is their religion,” said teacher Mohammad Shahnawaz.
For those displaced, the World Vision aid group said high temperatures, insufficient toilets and a lack of electricity made conditions in camps “intolerable” despite the efforts of the authorities and aid agencies.
“We may not be able to meet the most basic needs of the refugees as quickly as they are arriving in the camps if it continues at this pace,” Jeff Hall, a deputy director for World Vision, said in a statement.
The exodus puts an extra burden on an economy propped up by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan, while the fighting has unnerved investors in Pakistani stocks.
But the chairman of the government disaster authority, Farooq Ahmed Khan, said facilities would be provided quickly.
Khan said 185,000 displaced people from the Swat area had been registered, with 37,000 in camps and the rest staying with relatives, friends or in rented accommodation.
“Overall, the government of Pakistan is geared up to meet this challenge,” Khan told Dawn TV. “We have met challenges far more serious than this.”
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Will Dunham in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan