MINGORA, Pakistan – Helicopter gunships and mortar teams pounded militant strongholds in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing dozens, the military said, as Taliban reinforcements poured down from their mountain hideouts and seized homes and government buildings.
The army began taking the fight to militants entrenched in both the Swat Valley and in Buner, just 100 kilometres from the capital, as Pakistan’s leader prepared to hear demands from President Barack Obama for forceful action from a struggling ally.
The latest actions will please Washington, which is urging Pakistan to crack down on militants blamed for rising violence at home and in Afghanistan.
Since fighting broke out Tuesday, thousands of men, women and children have fled Swat’s main town of Mingora and surrounding districts, fearing an imminent military operation. The government said it believes refugees could reach 500,000.
“It is an all-out war there. Rockets are landing everywhere,” said Laiq Zada, a 33-year old who fled the valley late Tuesday and was now in a government-run tent camp out of the danger zone. “We have with us the clothes on our bodies and a hope in the house of God. Nothing else.”
The clashes followed the collapse of a three-month-old truce in Swat that was widely criticized in the West as a surrender to the militants, who had fought the army to a standstill in two years of clashes that saw hundreds of civilian casualties.
It is uncertain whether the Pakistani public has the stomach for a long battle. The truce gave militants time to rest and reinforce their positions and any operation would involve fierce fighting in urban areas and would likely cause significant civilian casualties and property damage.
The Swat Taliban are estimated to have up to 7,000 fighters against some 15,000 troops who until recent days had been confined to their barracks under the peace deal.
The military said Wednesday’s offensive killed about 35 militants positioned near emerald mines in the Swat Valley and 27 in neighbouring Buner, where troops have halted a Taliban push toward the capital Islamabad.
The Taliban killed two soldiers with a roadside bomb and two more in an assault on a power plant near Mingora, a military statement said.
“Armed militants have come down from their hideouts into the cities and have occupied civil houses and government buildings” as well as planting bombs to target both troops and civilians, it said.
The militant casualty figures could not be verified independently, and there was no official word on deaths or injuries among civilians.