ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani government on Sunday urged people stranded by a military offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat valley to try to get out.
Many civilians are believed to still be inside Mingora, the main town in Swat, after the army launched an offensive more than a week ago to stop the spread of Taliban influence.
“I appeal to the people of Mingora and other parts which are under aggression, as soon as they get an opportunity, the curfew is relaxed, they should come out,” Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told reporters.
The army said intense exchanges of fire were taking place on the outskirts of Mingora. Malik also said security forces were hunting for the leaders of the Taliban in Swat.
“Those leaders, those commanders, who are controlling the Taliban, obviously we’re going to hit them. We’re not going to spare them,” he said. “You’ll hear good news soon.”
Malik said more than 1,000 militants had been killed in the offensive, which followed the collapse of a peace deal which Washington had criticized.
There was no independent confirmation on the numbers of militants killed. The military has reported a similar toll for the militants and has said 49 soldiers have been killed.
The offensive in the one-time tourist valley, 130 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, has also forced at least 1.17 million people from their homes, the U.N. refugee agency said.
President Asif Ali Zardari said Swat was just the beginning.
“We’re going to go into Waziristan, all those regions, with army operations,” Zardari told the Sunday Times in an interview, referring to a militant stronghold on the Afghan border.
Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who authorities accused of masterminding the 2007 assassination of Zardari’s wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is based in South Waziristan.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding out somewhere along the border.
About 15,000 members of the security forces are fighting between 4,000 and 5,000 militants in Swat, the military says.
The offensive has widespread support among most political parties and members of the public. However, support could evaporate if many civilians are killed or if the people displaced are not properly looked after.
The military says it has inflicted no civilian casualties as soldiers have been attacking militants in the mountains, not in built-up areas. But it has said it will go after the Taliban in Mingora and other towns.
On Sunday, security forces moved into the town of Matta, where the Taliban leader in the valley, Fazlullah, was believed to be hiding. The army asked people to stay away from militant strongholds and help troops to identify and target them.
Security forces wanted the people’s help to clear out the militants and ensure they never returned, the army said. “This will only be possible when people rise against them,” it said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said on Saturday the flood of people who have poured out of Swat was one of the most dramatic displacement crises in recent times.
The United Nations has registered 1.17 million people, though many are believed not to have bothered to register. They are joining about 565,000 displaced by earlier fighting in the northwest.
Malik, while urging people to flee from Swat’s main town, said displaced people could return to some other areas in the valley that troops had cleared.
Writing by Robert Birsel; editing by Myra MacDonald
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