- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani security forces fought street battles with Taliban militants in the Swat Valley’s main urban center Saturday, a critical phase in the effort to wrest the northwest region near Afghanistan out of insurgent hands.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas warned that the operation in Mingora could be “painfully slow,” noting some 10,000 to 20,000 civilians are still trapped there.

Maj. Gen. Abbas said 17 suspected militants had been killed in the past 24 hours of the operation in the valley. He said another major town, Matta, was cleared of militants. But some 1,500 to 2,000 insurgents remained in Swat - hard-core fighters, he said.

Mingora, which normally has at least 375,000 residents, is a major commercial center for the valley, one the military had been preparing to enter for several days.

“The terrorists are going to use [civilians] as human shields. They are going to make them hostage, so we are moving very carefully,” Gen. Abbas said. “The pace of the operation will be painfully slow. So keep patient. But the operation has started and, God willing, we are going to take it to the logical conclusion.”

The military says about 1,100 suspected insurgents have died so far in the month-old offensive. It has not given any tally of civilian deaths, and it is not clear how it is separating civilians killed from militants. Residents fleeing the region have reported dozens of ordinary Pakistanis killed in the fight.

Gen. Abbas also said no civilians were killed during the operation in Matta. Information provided by the military and civilians is nearly impossible to verify independently because of limited access to the region.

The offensive also has triggered an exodus of nearly 1.9 million refugees, more than 160,000 to relief camps. Some fear the generally broad public support for the military campaign could drain away if the refugees’ plight worsens or if the army gets bogged down too long.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Saturday downplayed reports that the army would expand the offensive to the lawless, semiautonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan where al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have long had strongholds.

Reports that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said such an expansion was in the works have already led some families to leave the South Waziristan tribal area, the main base of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

“It is not like this,” Mr. Gilani said in response to questions about a possible new front. “We are not foolish to do it everywhere.”

It would be difficult for the army to force a fight in another territory before clearing the Taliban from Swat.

Pakistan’s army has long been more structured around fighting a conventional battle against rival India on the plains of the Punjab region, using tanks and artillery. It has limited experience battling guerrillas in urban settings. Many Taliban fighters can simply blend into the population or melt away to the hillsides.

The army said it had made gains toward retaking another Taliban hide-out in Swat, the Piochar area, putting the militants there on the run. In a statement, it said local residents had told them they were subjected to forced labor by “miscreants-terrorists.”

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