Monday, May 25, 2009

Pakistani Taliban: We'll avoid combat in Swat city

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Taliban militants will not attack the military in the main town of Pakistan's Swat Valley to avoid triggering battles that would result in civilian casualties and destruction, a militant spokesman said.

The army on Monday hailed the announcement as a sign that the outnumbered militants were "staring defeat in the face."

Elsewhere in the northwest, security forces attacked militant hide-outs in the South Waziristan tribal region after the insurgents lobbed rockets on military camps, intelligence officials said. The violence was prompting many residents to flee.

The army said it secured at least eight major intersections in the main town Mingora and was arresting and killing Taliban fighters. But Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the insurgents were not withdrawing and denied his announcement was a call for a cease-fire.

"This is a long war and we will fight it strategically," he told The Associated Press late Sunday from an undisclosed location in the valley. "We will continue fighting until an Islamic system is enforced."

Pakistan began the offensive last month against militants in the northwestern region after they ignored the terms of a cease-fire. Its Western allies, worried the nuclear-armed nation was buckling under the threat of the militants, have hailed the operation.

Close to 1.9 million people have fled the valley and surrounding districts, but up to 20,000 remain in Mingora, where the military entered Saturday after encircling it. Many of the estimated 4,000 militants in the valley are believed to be there, raising the prospect of bloody urban fighting.

A resident on the outskirts of the city said 3,000 people were stranded in his neighborhood and were suffering.

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

Pakistan will need at least $1 billion to reconstruct damaged areas and help the displaced resettle once the fighting ends, federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said.

"To send them back home, we have started initial satellite surveys for the rehabilitation of their homes, business and cultivatable lands," he said.

Khan, the militant spokesman, said Taliban fighters would not engage the army in Mingora because "we have seen when the army retaliate for our attacks they always kill civilians. Their attacks always damage public property. We do not want that," he said.

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 in the city would go on as planned. Commanders have said they aim to eliminate the militants in the valley and on Friday said any form of cease-fire was highly unlikely.

The military says about 1,100 suspected insurgents have died so far in the offensive. It has not given any tally of civilian deaths, and it's unclear how it is separating noncombatants killed from militants. Residents fleeing the region have reported dozens of ordinary Pakistanis killed in the fight. Journalists have mostly been barred from reporting there.

Most of the refugees are staying with families or friends, but more than 160,000 are in relief camps just south of the battle zone. 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.

In recent days, Pakistani officials have tried to quell rumors of an imminent military offensive in South Waziristan, part of the semiautonomous tribal belt that has long been a magnet for al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Still, troops and insurgents there have fought in recent days.

The latest clashes came after suspected militants lobbed rockets and mortar shells at two military camps in the Khargai Kila and Jundola areas. Troops retaliated with artillery fire in several spots, two intelligence officials told AP.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media on the record.

Many families have begun to flee the region amid the violence and reports of greater military action.

"Bombing has destroyed our homes and shops and we had no choice except to leave the area," said Ahmed Khan Bittani, who was evacuating with his extended family including 10 children.

Associated Press writers Isthiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Ashraf Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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