- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

MARDAN, Pakistan | Pakistan’s army vowed Friday to eliminate militants from a northwestern valley but warned that its underequipped troops face thousands of Taliban extremists who have seized towns, planted bombs made from pressure cookers, and dragooned children to be suicide bombers.

As air force jets roared overhead and gunbattles raged, terrified civilians from the Swat Valley and neighboring districts accelerated their exodus, with U.N. and Pakistani officials predicting 1 million refugees will soon burden the turbulent Afghan border region.

The army formally announced Friday that an offensive was under way. It has drawn praise from U.S. officials alarmed at the Taliban’s recent advance to within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad.

“The army is now engaged in a full-scale operation to eliminate the militants, miscreants and anti-state elements from Swat,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief army spokesman. “They are on the run and trying to block the exodus of civilians from the area.”

The army announced its offensive after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the government would wipe out groups trying to “take Pakistan hostage at gunpoint.” Battles and bombing runs by helicopters and jets have been going on all week.

Gen. Abbas said Friday that more than 140 militants and two soldiers had been killed in Swat in the previous 24 hours - roughly doubling the number of casualties reported so far.

The latest figure included 100 militants killed in bombardments of remote training camps and arms dumps. Gen. Abbas didn’t explain how the body count was done. Fighting in neighboring Buner and Lower Dir killed another 31 militants and three soldiers, he said.

Officials say they are unable to confirm accounts from fleeing civilians of innocents killed and wounded by indiscriminate gunfire and shelling.

The mayor of Mardan, the main district to the south of the fighting, said an estimated 250,000 people had fled in recent days. Of those, 4,500 were staying in camps, while the rest were with relatives or rented accommodation, he said.

On Friday, the U.N. refugee agency said provincial officials had told them 500,000 had fled, were on the move, or were trying to flee. About a half-million have already been made homeless elsewhere in the border region since August 2008, when the army launched its last major anti-Taliban operation in the Bajaur border region.

Tens of thousands of people are trapped in Mingora, Swat’s main town. Some have accused the Taliban of not allowing them to leave, perhaps because they want to use them as human shields. Others came under attack even as they fled.

Siraj Muhammad, a 19-year-old mechanic among the exhausted multitude who made it to Mardan on Friday, said a shell exploded near people trying to walk to safety, killing two and wounding him, his mother and two siblings.

Gen. Abbas wouldn’t say how long it would take to clear the valley of 4,000 or 5,000 militants. He said the military was reinforcing the 12,000 to 15,000 troops already in Swat.

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