Pakistan gains in Swat as trouble flares elsewhere

Dozens killed in round of battles as military savors its victory over insurgents in valley's main city.

pakistan tanks 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
pakistan tanks 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Taliban fighters clashed with Pakistani troops in a northwest tribal region Sunday, intelligence officials said, an ominous round of battles that killed dozens just as the military savored its victory over insurgents in the Swat Valley's main city. The fighting in South Waziristan, the main base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, could raise the odds that the army will extend the Swat offensive to the semiautonomous tribal areas near Afghanistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban have long proliferated. The militant attacks could also be attempts to distract the military's focus from Swat. Pakistan's defense secretary said Sunday that the month-old military operations in Swat Valley "have met almost complete success." "Only 5 to 10 percent of the job is left and over the next two or three days this area will be cleared," Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Syed Athar Ali told an annual meeting of defense ministers, officials and experts in Singapore. US and other officials want Pakistan to clamp down on al-Qaida and the Taliban militants in the border region from which they plan attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan. The Swat offensive has earned Western praise, though the militant presence in the tribal areas remains a greater concern. Two intelligence officials told The Associated Press that insurgents attacked an army convoy Saturday night in Tiarza village in South Waziristan, sparking battles in various parts of the region. They estimated that 50 militants and two soldiers were killed. Early Sunday, militants fired more than a dozen missiles at an army camp in South Waziristan's Jandola area. The military retaliated using artillery, and some troops moved into a Taliban-held village to force out the armed Islamist extremists. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media. The information could not be independently verified because of limited access to the remote area, and other officials could not immediately be reached for comment. In Swat's main urban center, Mingora, Taliban fighters had dug themselves into bunkers built into hotels and government buildings, and initially offered stiff resistance, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. An unknown number of militants were able to escape Mingora town despite a military cordon around it, he said, raising the prospect that they could take the fight elsewhere. Authorities were distributing aid to many of the estimated 20,000 people trapped in Mingora, and water and gas supplies were being restored. An emergency medical team had been flown to Mingora and would work to reopen the town's hospital and treat civilians wounded in the fighting, Abbas said. But it will be at least two weeks before power is back on, and refugees are not yet being encouraged to return home, he added. About 3 million people have fled the fighting in Swat, posing a major humanitarian challenge to the struggling nation. The Taliban warned they would attack Pakistani cities in retaliation for the offensive in Swat and neighboring districts, which the army launched after militants tried to expand their presence following a peace agreement. They claimed responsibility for Wednesday's gun and suicide bomb attack in the eastern city of Lahore that killed at least 30 people. A day later, three suicide bombings killed at least 14 people in two cities in the northwest. Abbas said Saturday that 1,217 militants have been killed in the Swat offensive and 79 arrested, and 81 soldiers have died. The military has not released civilian casualty numbers and says all care is being taken to protect the innocent.