Thursday, May 7, 2009

TAKHT BAI, Pakistan | Pakistan launched air and ground attacks against up to 7,000 Taliban militants entrenched in a northwestern valley Wednesday, killing dozens holed up at emerald mines and on forested hillsides following urgent U.S. demands to step up the fight against the insurgents.

With militants fighting back and weary refugees lining up at camps, the operation will be a test of whether the army has the will, capability and political support to defeat an enemy that had three months under a now-shattered peace deal to rest and regroup.

“It is an all-out war there. Rockets are landing everywhere,” said Laiq Zada, 33, who fled the Swat Valley and is living 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.”

Wednesday’s clashes followed the collapse of a 3-month-old truce in Swat, a former tourist resort 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad, that saw the government impose Islamic law. It 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 and hundreds of civilian casualties.

The fighting came hours ahead of meetings between President Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington to explore ways to boost the country’s anti-terror fight, seen by many as the most pressing foreign policy issue facing the U.S. administration.

The accord in Swat began unraveling last month when Taliban fighters moved from the valley into the nearby district of Buner, even closer to Islamabad, prompting a military operation that the military says has killed more than 150 militants. The army said the operation is “progressing smoothly.”

The militants, who never laid down their weapons, resumed armed patrols in the main town of Mingora on Sunday and occupied public buildings, attacked security forces and blew up police stations, effectively ending the deal, according to officials and witnesses.

Sustained fighting broke out Tuesday, triggering a mass exodus from the town. Up to 40,000 people have fled the region, according to officials, who have warned that 500,000 could leave. Half a million out of a peacetime population of 1.5 million already fled two earlier army offensives and a Taliban reign of terror.

Witnesses said Mingora’s streets were largely deserted, with people too scared to leave their homes, as helicopters and mortar crews pounded militant positions in the town and outlying districts.

The military said about 35 militants positioned near emerald mines and in hillside bases above the town were killed. It reported another 50 enemy fighters killed in Buner in artillery strikes and clashes. Four soldiers were killed in a bomb attack and an assault on a power plant, the military said.

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