"Pakistani troops battle Taliban in Swat’s main city
By Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad
Published: May 23 2009 16:21 | Last updated: May 23 2009 16:21
Pakistan’s ongoing battle to regain control of the northern Swat valley from Taliban militants was stepped up on Saturday when the military launched a major campaign to seize Mingora, the main administrative and commercial hub of the region.
The battle for Mingora is potentially a high-risk venture as there are an estimated 10,000-20,000 civilians still trapped in the city.
Western diplomats warned the battle for Mingora could see large-scale civilian casualties as troops go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, targeting suspected locations of Taliban militants. The Pakistan military claims that so far 1100 militants have been killed and 29 captured, while it has lost about 60 of its own.
Last week, Pakistani officials said there were 200,000 people trapped in Mingora, but the military gave a window of opportunity by relaxing a curfew which allowed many to flee.
“The army has begun its operation to remove the militants. Mingora has been surrounded from all sides” said Major General Athar Abbas, the military’s chief spokesman. “Street fights have begun in Mingora. This is a very difficult and dangerous operation.”
Mr Abbas said the military was operating with concerns that retreating Taliban militants are likely to take civilians prisoner and then using them as human shields.
The battle for Mingora and other larger urban centres adds a new dimension to a situation which has already forced an estimated 2.5m people to flee the area and become internally displaced persons. United Nations officials have compared the exodus from Swat to the Rwandan exodus in the 1990s.
On Friday, the UN’s Secretary General Ban Ki Moon oversaw an appeal for $454m for the IDPs from Swat, a day after donors at a forum in Islamabad pledged $224m in emergency assistance.
“The scale of this displacement is extraordinary in terms of size and speed, and has caused incredible suffering” said Martin Mogwanja, the acting UN humanitarian coordinator, in a statement.
The Pakistani government has refused to give a timetable for ending the battle in Swat, arguing that it was difficult to know exactly how long eliminating the militants could take. A senior western diplomat however warned that if the conflict lasted for more than a month it would be difficult for the military to sustain.
Among other concerns, soaring temperatures across Pakistan’s plains will likely add to adverse conditions for the IDPs, who come from the mountainous Swat region—once the destination of choice for tourists looking for cooler temperatures.
“If this battle lasts for another month or so, I can see that raising the pressure on the military,” said one western diplomat. “As more and more people are displaced from Swat, there will be growing criticism of the failure to wind down this operation quickly.”
A second western diplomat warned that Pakistan’s civil and military leadership will likely face mounting criticism even when the operation ends.
“When these people head back home and find everything destroyed in their neighbourhoods, the IDPs will only point fingers towards the military for causing the destruction. No one will then remember the Taliban,” he said."