Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Taliban on Monday urged civilians to return to the Swat Valley’s main city, promising that it would not attack security forces, out of concern for the safety of trapped residents.

Pakistan’s military dismissed the gesture as a ploy that would allow the militants to blend in with the residents of Mingora and said it had no intention of halting its offensive in the valley.

More than 2 million civilians have fled Swat and nearby districts, making it easier for the army to single out insurgents, but returning civilians could further complicate the battle.

The appeal also appeared designed to play off the growing public concern for thousands still stuck in Mingora amid shortages of food and water.

The United States has strongly backed Pakistan’s month-old offensive in the northwest valley and neighboring districts. U.S. officials want Pakistan to root out hide-outs used by al Qaeda and Taliban fighters to plan attacks on Western troops in nearby Afghanistan, and Swat is considered an important test of the Muslim nation’s ability and willingness to do so.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told the Associated Press late Sunday and Monday afternoon that the Taliban’s pledge was not a formal cease-fire offer and that the Islamist militia’s “aides” would stay in the city.

“I would like to appeal to the people of Mingora to get back to their homes and start their routine life as we will not fire even a single shot,” Mr. Khan said in a phone call from an undisclosed location.

The army says it secured several major intersections in Mingora, a key commercial hub that under normal circumstances is home to at least 375,000 people. Many of the extremists were fleeing Mingora for Kabal, a town to the west that security forces were also trying to secure, the army said in a statement Monday.

Troops also have secured Malam Jabba - a ski resort that militants wrecked last year - which the army said the Taliban were using as a training center and logistics base.

Asked about the Taliban’s appeal, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the militants “have started using ploys to escape. They are now remembering the civilians whom they used to behead and decapitate.”

He said the operation - which involves some 12,000 to 15,000 security forces - would go on as planned. Earlier, he estimated that about 1,500 to 2,000 hard-core militants remained in the valley.

Up to 20,000 civilians remain in Mingora. A resident on the city’s outskirts said 3,000 people were stranded in his neighborhood.

“We do not have anything to eat. We do not have water,” Liaqat Ali said. “We do not have medicines. We do not have any doctor or any hospitals to go to.”

During a meeting with a U.S. congressional delegation visiting Monday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appealed for more American aid to help those who managed to get out of Swat, according to a news release from Mr. Gilani’s office. Washington has already promised $110 million in humanitarian assistance to Pakistan.

As many as 2.4 million people have been displaced in the operation, officials said Monday. At least 160,000 are living in relief camps, while the rest are with relatives, friends or in rented property.

How the government handles the crisis could affect the generally broad public support for the military campaign. The Taliban has a history of making and then breaking cease-fire deals.

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