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Pakistan will defeat Taliban, must win hearts: PM

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan will defeat the Taliban militarily but could lose the public relations war if it fails to help the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said on Thursday.

A soldier keeps guard at the entrance to a UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) camp, where hundreds of evacuees from Swat were seeking shelter, in the outskirts of Peshawar, May 14, 2009. REUTERS/Ali Imam

The army launched an offensive in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, last week after the United States accused leaders of the nuclear-armed country of “abdicating” to the militants.

At least 830,000 people have fled their homes, joining more than 500,000 displaced by earlier fighting in the northwest.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, visiting a camp for the displaced, said Pakistan needed massive international help to avert a tragedy.

Gilani said the government planned a conference of aid donors but said he also expected the Pakistani people to help.

“Militarily we will win the war but it will be unfortunate if we loose it publicly,” Gilani told the National Assembly.

Most political parties and members of the public support the offensive, despite widespread doubts about a close alliance with the United States in its campaign against militancy.

Opposition is likely to grow if many civilians are killed in the fighting or if the displaced endure undue hardship.

The offensive was launched when President Asif Ali Zardari was in Washington assuring the United States his government was not about to collapse and was committed to fighting militancy.

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Pakistani action against militants in its northwest is vital for U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.

About 15,000 members of the security forces are facing about 5,000 militants in the Swat region, the military says.

It said there had been heavy fighting in a Taliban stronghold in the Peochar valley, a side valley running northwest off the main Swat valley, and in an area near the region’s main town, Mingora, which the Taliban still hold.

“We have achieved considerable progress,” military spokesman Major-Genral Athar Abbas told a briefing.

Around 124 militants and nine soldiers had been killed in the previous 24 hours, the military said. That would take the toll to around 870 militants and 45 soldiers. Reporters have left Swat and there was no independent confirmation of the toll.

The military has said there have been no reported civilian casualties as soldiers were targeting militants in mountains and urban warfare had not started. Abbas said that would come.

“MORE DRAMATIC”

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani visited soldiers in Swat and reiterated the army’s resolve to flush militancy from the area and defeat the gunmen, the military said.

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There are fears militants will step up attacks elsewhere in response to the offensive. Gunmen ambushed an army convoy in North Waziristan on the Afghan border and three soldiers and five militants were killed, security officials said.

Residents began fleeing late last month when the army attacked the Taliban in two districts near Swat which the militants had occupied in violation of a February peace pact aimed at ending violence in the former tourist valley.

The U.N. refugee agency said only about 80,000 of the displaced were staying in camps, with the rest with friends, relatives, or in rented accommodation or in “spontaneous settlements” that were springing up.

In urging international assistance, Guterres told reporters in the Yar Hussain camp he was appealing to the international community’s “enlightened self-interest.”

“What I’m concerned about is that if there’s no positive response by the international community to supporting the Pakistani people then it’ll make the situation of the country more dramatic in all aspects,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Zeeshan Haider; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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