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Pakistan, Taliban fight block to block

Pakistani army calls urban push a crucial phase

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani troops pushed into the largest city in the contested Swat Valley on Saturday and fought block to block with Taliban militants in an apparent escalation of the army’s effort to retake the picturesque area, which has become a symbol of insurgent defiance and government deficiency.

The army said the operation in Mingora marked the beginning of the most important phase of its nearly month-old campaign to win control of Swat and warned that the fighting would intensify. Previous clashes were centered in more rural parts of the valley, and Saturday’s offensive could unleash a bloody urban street fight.

“The pace of the operation will be painfully slow. So be patient. But the operation has started, and, God willing, we are going to take it to a logical conclusion,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman.

The Taliban have controlled Swat off and on since late 2007. Under a peace deal with the government, its fighters were supposed to lay down their weapons this spring in exchange for the institution of Islamic courts in Swat. But the truce collapsed when Taliban fighters overran the adjacent areas of Buner and Dir, putting their forces within 60 miles of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. For nearly a month since the deal’s demise, 15,000 Pakistani troops have fought about 3,000 to 4,000 Taliban fighters up and down steep mountain passes.

The Pakistani military boasts that it has retaken some Taliban strongholds, including strategically important hilltops in Swat, which was once a major tourist destination. But the Taliban are thought to have dug into positions in Mingora, and any effort to win back the densely packed city is likely to be long and bloody. Abbas said troops would conduct house-to-house searches and had been warned about suicide attacks.

A Mingora resident reached by telephone said there had been intense fighting in the center of the city Saturday. Nasir Khan, a merchant, said he had been stranded in the city and that from his home he could hear the two sides trading fire. The battle, he said, was apparently unfolding in several parts of Mingora, including the central bus terminal and along the main road near the city’s primary gateway.

“Taliban militants are offering tough resistance,” he said.

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