MINGORA, Pakistan (AP) | Pakistan’s army readied a major assault to rid the main town in the Swat Valley of entrenched Taliban militants, who the military said Friday were shaving their beards in order to mingle undetected with fleeing civilians.
The dusty streets of Mingora were mostly empty - one resident said some unidentified bodies lay unburied there. The government relaxed a curfew to allow thousands of refugees to leave with whatever possessions they could carry ahead of what is expected to be bloody fighting.
An Associated Press reporter saw four armed Taliban fighters on the edge of town, a little more than a mile from an army checkpoint. The army and witnesses have said the militants have dug trenches and laid mines to repel an assault.
Pakistan began operations in the valley and surrounding districts last month after intense U.S. pressure for action against extremists eroding the stability of the nuclear-armed state and attacking American troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
The operation was launched after the militants pushed out from Swat to seize a district just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, under cover of the since-collapsed peace process. The advance alarmed Washington and many Pakistanis who had thought they could negotiate with the militants.
The military said it has killed more than 800 of the estimated 4,000 militants in the region, but the fighting has triggered an exodus of at least 900,000 people, creating a humanitarian crisis that risks undercutting public support for the offensive.
“Wherever the terrorists are present, they need to be eliminated completely,” said Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of North West Frontier Province. Until last month, he was the leading advocate of moves to make peace with the insurgents.
The army lifted its curfew in Mingora for eight hours and urged the remaining residents to flee “so that security forces can take the militants to task in street-to-street fighting,” army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
Columns of cars, trucks and horse-drawn carts packed with people and bundles of possessions streamed out of the town. Some picked their way past bombed-out government buildings and burned-out civilian vehicles along the crowded and cratered main highway. Others took dirt roads through the fields and mountains.
Many went south on foot with only the clothes on their backs.
The military said militants were shaving off their beards and cutting their hair - flowing locks were fashionable among members of the Swat Taliban - in order to escape by mingling with the refugees pouring out of the valley. Authorities have placed security personnel at the camps and say they are trying to stop any militants from infiltrating.