ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani security forces fought Taliban militants on the outskirts of the main city in the northwest’s Swat Valley and entered two other Taliban-held towns there, the army said Sunday, foreshadowing what could become bloody urban battles.
A top government official said the offensive near Afghanistan had already killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters, while a group of pro-government religious leaders endorsed the operation but condemned U.S. missile strikes in the northwest.
The developments underscored Pakistan’s resolve and frustration in its battle against militancy.
Recent Taliban forays into a district just 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital, seem to have swayed many Pakistanis to support the most recent military operation, but that could easily change if the toll on the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced mounts, and if more U.S. missile strikes stoke greater popular discontent.
In giving the 1,000-plus death toll Sunday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the operation in Swat and surrounding areas would “continue till the last Taliban are flushed out.” It was not possible to independently verify the figure. The territories bombarded over the past three weeks are now too dangerous for journalists to freely visit.
In a statement Sunday afternoon, the army said 25 militants and a soldier died in the previous 24 hours.
Security forces were facing off with militants in “intense fire engagements” on the outskirts of Swat’s main town, Mingora, where many of the estimated 4,000 Taliban fighters in the valley are believed to be holed up, the statement said.
It also said security forces had surrounded and entered the towns of Matta and Kanju to take on the militants, and it requested civilians still in those areas stay away from the Taliban hide-outs. Troops were making gains in remote Piochar area, the rear base of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, it added.
“The operation is going in the right direction as we had planned,” Malik said in a televised news conference from Mardan, where he went to relief camps to see some of the new refugees. “I cannot give a time but we will try (to complete the operation) at the earliest.”
In Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi, meanwhile, police said a tip-off led them to arrest four alleged militants of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned outfit linked to both the Taliban and al-Qaida. The men are suspected of planning attacks on high-value targets in Karachi, senior police officer Chaudhry Mohammad Aslam said.