KOTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Taliban fighters are shaving off their beards and trying to flee from a Pakistani army offensive in their Swat bastion, the military said on Friday, as it relaxed a curfew to allow civilians to get out.
The army launched an offensive in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, last week to stop the spread of Taliban influence which had alarmed the United States and other Western allies of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
More than 900,000 civilians have fled and the United Nations has warned of a humanitarian tragedy unless Pakistan gets massive assistance.
Clashes had erupted in various parts of the region, the military said on Friday, adding it was achieving successes.
It also appealed to civilians to identify Taliban fighters trying to flee.
“We have confirmed reports that these Taliban terrorists, after shaving off their beards and cutting their hair, are fleeing from the area,” the military said in a statement.
“We request the people of Swat to identify them,” it said, while providing a telephone number for informants to call or send text messages.
Taliban members and supporters usually have long beards and many of them also have long hair. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban about the military’s statement.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who is in Pakistan, has called for massive international help to avert a tragedy. His agency said more than 907,000 people have registered as displaced since May 2.
Residents began fleeing late last month when the army attacked the Taliban in two districts near Swat they had occupied in violation of a February peace pact aimed at ending violence in the former tourist valley.
The United States had criticized the pact as tantamount to “abdicating” to the militants. Pakistan is vital for U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.
Most political parties and members of the public support the offensive, despite skepticism about an alliance with the United States in its campaign against militancy. But opposition will grow if many civilians are killed or if the displaced are seen to be enduring undue hardship.
Investors in Pakistani stocks have been unnerved by the fighting in recent days but the Karachi Stock Exchange’s benchmark 100-share index ended 0.49 percent up at 7,177.64.
The military said on Friday afternoon 55 militants and three soldiers had been killed in the previous 24 hours. That would take the toll to about 925 militants and 48 soldiers.
Reporters have left Swat and there was no independent confirmation of the casualties. About 15,000 members of the security forces face about 5,000 militants, the military says.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told political leaders the country was at a crossroads.
“Militants have threatened the very fabric of our society,” he said, according to a statement from his office.
The military has said there have been no reports of civilian casualties in its actions as soldiers were targeting militants in mountains and urban warfare had not started, although it warned that would come.
The military lifted a curfew in Mingora, Swat’s main town which the Taliban still control, for eight hours from early on Friday and thousands of people streamed out, heading south where authorities have set up camps on the low land.
Taliban in Waziristan on the Afghan border demanded an end to attacks by U.S. drone aircraft, the release of prisoners and the withdrawal of troops, adding the authorities would be responsible for the consequences if their demands were not met in 10 days.
“War clouds loom over North and South Waziristan,” a Taliban umbrella group said in a statement.
An ethnic Pashtun tribal leader in South Waziristan, Waris Khan Mehsud, said people fearing fighting had begun leaving areas under the control of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.