Deadly Pakistan fighting ahead of US summit
Pakistan said it killed more than 60 militants in heavy bombardments in an upsurge of fighting Wednesday that caused tens of thousands to flee and threatened to torpedo a northwest peace deal.
The military announced the death tolls, which could not be independently confirmed, ahead of a summit between US President Barack Obama and President Asif Ali Zardari, under US pressure to crush Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
Helicopter gunships and artillery swung into action against Taliban in Swat Wednesday in the deadliest fighting reported in the northwest former ski resort since a February deal sought to end a nearly two-year Taliban insurgency.
"Security forces were being targeted from emerald mines. In retaliatory fire 35 militants were killed," the military said in a statement.
Another military spokesman said helicopter gunships and artillery bombarded the mines before ground troops recaptured the area from the Taliban. He also said there were reports of civilian casualties in fighting in Swat.
"There are reports of civilian casualties in today's engagements but no details were immediately available because the area is under curfew," he said.
The government scrambled to shelter up to they expect to flee Swat and local officials said tens of thousands streamed out of the district's main town.
"More than 40,000 have migrated from Mingora since Tuesday afternoon," said Khushhal Khan, the chief administration officer in Swat.
"An exodus of more than 40,000 people is the minimum number -- it should actually be more than 50,000," said an intelligence official.
Bedraggled men, women in burkas and children piled onto pick-up trucks and led animals through streets in their haste to , where the Taliban has sought to impose sharia law, bombing girls schools and beheading officials.
"I don't want my unborn baby to have even the slightest idea what suicide attacks and bomb blasts are. That's why I'm leaving Mingora with my husband," said a sobbing and heavily pregnant Bakht Zehra.
"For God's sake tell me where I can bring up my child where there are no suicide attacks," she cried.
Although a three-month peace accord appeared in tatters, spokesmen for the government and the pro-Taliban cleric who signed the deal, Sufi Mohammad, insisted before the deadly fighting was announced that it remained intact.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, spokesman for the government in North West Frontier Province, did not confirm an exact number of displaced but said the government was building more emergency shelters.
"There are eight camps that already exist for IDPs at different places, including Peshawar, and we are going to set up six new camps in Swabi and Mardan while an existing camp at Dargai will be expanded further," he said.
Khan said Taliban militants overnight seized control of several buildings and that four civilians were killed in Mingora overnight.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed his fighters controlled "more than 90 percent" of Swat, where government forces have been largely confined to their bases in the past, and blamed the deaths overnight on security forces.
"If the government launches an operation against us we will give them a fitting reply, which it will remember for a long time," Khan told AFP.
The government was heavily criticised for the February deal to put three million people in the northwest under sharia law in a bid to end the uprising, which instead saw the Taliban push further south towards the capital Islamabad.
Artillery bombarded insurgent positions in Buner on Wednesday, killing 27 militants and destroying eight vehicles, paramilitary forces said.
Ten days ago, Pakistan launched offensives in the district and Lower in Dir, which neighbour Swat, to flush out advancing armed Taliban under US pressure to crush militants, which calls the biggest terror threat to the West.
The violence and displacement forced Zardari to insist in Washington that his government was safe ahead of a crunch summit at the White House with Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"My government is not going to fall when one mountain is taken by one group or the other," Zardari told CNN.
US lawmakers, who are being asked to triple aid to Pakistan to 7.5 billion dollars, have voiced increasing fears that the nuclear-armed country is losing the fight against Islamist extremists.