- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

MARDAN, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani commandos dropped from helicopters behind Taliban lines in the Swat Valley on Tuesday in a widening offensive that the military said has lifted the number of refugees in the northwest to 1.3 million.

Further south, a suspected U.S. missile attack flattened a house and killed at least eight people in another militant stronghold near the Afghan border.

Choppers inserted troops into the remote Piochar area in the upper reaches of the Swat Valley, an army statement said. Officials identified it as the rear-base of an estimated 4,000 Taliban militants also entrenched in Swat’s main towns. It is seen as possible hiding place of Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah.

A military spokesman declined to give details of the Piochar assault, but a senior government official expressed optimism that the battle for Swat might prove short.

“The way they (militants) are being beaten, the way their recruits are fleeing, and the way the Pakistan army is using its strategy, God willing the operation will be completed very soon,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.

Pakistani authorities launched a full-scale assault on Swat and surrounding districts last week after the Taliban pushed out from the valley on the back of a now-defunct peace deal and extended their control to areas just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.

The military response has won praise from American officials, who insist Islamabad must eliminate safe havens used by militants to undermine the pro-Western governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The army said Tuesday that its troops, backed by artillery and airstrikes, had killed some 700 militants in Swat and neighboring districts so far.

But the offensive has also unleashed a tide of refugees, whose plight could sap public support for the kind of sustained action against an increasingly interlinked array of Islamist extremists that the cash-strapped country’s Western backers want to see.

Including some half-million who fled fighting in the Bajur border region last year, an army officer said Tuesday that the total number displaced in the northwest had risen to 1.3 million.

The U.N. has registered 360,000 refugees from the latest fighting. About 30,000 are living in hot, tented camps established just south of the war zone.

But officials acknowledge that many more have taken refuge with relatives without registering with the authorities.

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