Pakistan jets bomb Taliban as 170,000 more refugees flee

Pakistan helicopters and fighter jets attacked Taliban targets in the northwest Wednesday as the government lobbied Afghanistan for a closer alliance in the battle against militants.

Around 170,000 more civilians registered as refugees with the UN after fleeing the offensive in the northwest, where Taliban fighters have terrorised the population in a campaign to enforce sharia law and expand their control.

Terrified residents trapped in Mingora, the district's main town, told AFP by telephone that militants had planted mines and were digging trenches.

"People are becoming mentally ill, our senses have shut down, children and woman are crying; please tell the government to pull us out of here," said one shopkeeper contacted by AFP who did not want to give his name.

"Forget the lack of electricity and other problems, the Taliban are everywhere and heavy exchanges of fire are routine at night."

Pakistan residents inspect a local police force post destroyed by Taliban militants in Malakand district.

Air strikes targeted Taliban positions across Swat, which has sunk from a stunning ski resort favoured by Westerners to a crucible of Taliban violence, where ground troops have yet to take control.

Helicopter gunships also swung into action in the neighbouring district of Lower Dir, where the military has been on the offensive since April 26 after Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.

A military spokesman reported "heavy fighting" in Swat's northern mountains at Peochar, the suspected stronghold of firebrand Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, where airborne commandos on Tuesday opened a new front.

Following calls from rights groups to avoid civilian casualties, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani ordered his troops to ensure "minimum collateral damage even at the expense of taking risks, by resorting to precision strikes".

Up to 15,000 security forces are taking on about 4,000 well-armed fighters in Swat, where Islamabad has ordered a battle to "eliminate" Islamist militants, branded by Washington as the greatest terror threat to the West.

Military officials said exit roads from Mingora had been closed and troops were surrounding the town to prevent militants leaving.

Amjad Ali, a 35-year-old plumber, said he and his four children walked for three days to the Jalozai refugee camp to escape scenes of horror in Mingora, where Taliban were armed with guns, sniper rifles and rocket launchers.

"Bodies were dragged by dogs... nobody could collect them," he said.

There were scenes of chaos at the camp, where staff were battling to register the queuing mass of displaced people, angrily complaining about a lack of food and drinking water.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed "deep concern" about the situation in the area, where the UN refugee agency said 670,906 stranded people had registered.

That amounted to an increase of around 170,000 people who had signed up in the last 24 hours, on top of about half a million people displaced in the past.

Overall, the military says more than 750 militants and 33 troops have been killed in its operations in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat, although there is no independent confirmation of the figures and no word on civilian casualties.

In Islamabad, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks on the margins of a development conference focused on war-torn Afghanistan, gripped by a seven-year Taliban insurgency.

A Pakistani statement said they expressed "resolve to root out militants and terrorists" from their respective sides of the border, and that Karzai would "fully back Pakistan's efforts in combating terrorism."

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, en route home from talks in the United States, has appealed for global aid for the human catastrophe unfolding in his nuclear-armed Muslim country.

Speaking after meeting British Prime Minister in London, Zadari said that Pakistan had also asked Washington for "ownership" of US drones carrying out attacks on its territory.

"Democracy doesn't believe in half measures. We've asked for the ownership of the drones," he said, when asked about reports that the US had agreed to pass control of drone aircraft to Islamabad.

Zardari said Islamabad was "negotiating terms" with the US over the drones, long a source of tension between Washington and Islamabad.

Source AFP

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