Mingora (Pakistan) : Pakistani helicopter gunships blasted Taliban positions in the militants’ Swat valley bastion on Saturday, while a curfew blocked residents from joining hundreds of thousands who have already fled the fighting.
The struggle in the scenic northwestern valley 130 km from Islamabad has become a test of Pakistan’s resolve to fight a growing Taliban insurgency that has alarmed the United States.
Pakistan’s army went on a full-scale offensive on Friday after a government go-ahead to flush out violent militants from the Islamist stronghold, a former tourism centre. The military said late on Friday 143 militants had been killed over the previous 24 hours.
Fighting had already picked up earlier in the week, triggering a mass civilian exodus from the battle zones in recent days, but concerns are growing about the fate of those still trapped and unable to move because of a curfew.
“We are feeling so helpless, we want to go but can’t as there is a curfew,” said Sallahudin Khan by telephone from Mingora, Swat’s main town.
“We tried to leave on Friday after authorities relaxed the curfew for a few hours, but couldn’t as the main road leading out of Mingora was literally jammed with the flood of fleeing people,” he said as gunship fire boomed in the background.
Helicopters targeted militant hideouts in Mingora on Saturday after insurgents fired rockets at a military base in the town, military officials said, but there were no immediate reports of any casualties on either side.
Swat’s top administrator, Khushal Khan, told Reuters the curfew would remain in force throughout the day, although he said there could be a break at some point later so those who wanted to go could leave.
The UN refugee agency has said a “massive displacement” is underway. Citing provincial government estimates, it said on Friday up to 200,000 people had left their homes over recent days with another 300,000 on the move or about to move.
They join 555,000 people displaced from other areas because of fighting since August, the agency said.
Many of the displaced stay with relatives or friends or find shelter on their own, but aid agencies and officials fear if the situation is protracted they will join tens of thousands in camps, further straining resources.
“If the conflict lasts longer, then we expect those living outside camps to come to the camps and that will be a huge problem,” Khalid Khan Umerzai, an official in North West Frontier Province, said this week, citing funds shortages for care.
Pakistan’s private Express TV station reported looting at one camp on Saturday, showing scenes of scuffles over supplies, but said the situation had been brought under control.
Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told a news conference on Saturday the government would work to mobilize support at home for the military action and seek international help to address the issue of displaced people.
He also pledged the military would do its best to avoid hurting civilians. “This is not a normal war. This is a guerrilla war. But it is our resolve, it is the resolve of the army that there should be minimum collateral damage.”
“This is our own war. This is war for the survival of the country,” Gilani said.
The military’s top spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas, said on Friday that while government forces were determined to eliminate militants in Swat, the operation was difficult. He declined to give a timeline for clearing the valley.
Pakistan’s fight against militants sheltering near the border with Afghanistan is seen as vital to efforts to defeat the insurgency in that country.
While Swat is not next to the border analysts fear it could also become a base for Afghanistan insurgents as well as for efforts to destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan’s government. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in talks in Washington this week, assured US President Barack Obama of Islamabad’s commitment to defeating Al-Qaeda and its allies.
Up to 15,000 troops have been pitched against between 4,000 to 5,000 battle-hardened militants in the valley, where residents say insurgents hold sway in most parts.
“In my area, there is no government, it’s all Taliban,” said Ibrahim Khan, a farmer in the militant stronghold of Matta town.
“They are in full control.”
In an incident that could hurt government efforts to rally support for the offensive, suspected pilotless US drone aircraft fired missiles on Saturday at targets in South Waziristan, an Al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary on the Afghanistan border southwest of Islamabad, intelligence officials said.
Pakistanis have been critical of such US attacks on militant targets because they sometimes kill civilians and are viewed as violating the country’s sovereignty.
They have been a factor in past opposition to Islamabad’s cooperating with Washington in fighting militants.