Pakistan ordered its military on Thursday to eliminate "terrorists" as air and ground troops pounded extremists branded by Washington a threat to the nuclear-armed country's very existence.
Attack helicopters and war planes bombarded suspected Taliban hideouts in the Swat Valley during the deadliest fighting to grip the northwest district since the government brokered a February peace agreement with hardliners.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani delivered a televised address urging the nation to unite against extremists, whom he said were threatening the country's sovereignty and who had violated the peace deal with attacks.
|Pakistani people listen to a speech of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, on television at a shop during Gilani addresses to the nation in Karachi.|
And Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari vowed that military operations would last until "normalcy" had returned to the troubled Swat Valley.
The deeply controversial agreement between the government and a pro-Taliban cleric to put three million people in a wide region of northwest Pakistan under sharia law had been meant to end a nearly two-year violent Taliban uprising.
"In order to restore honour and dignity of our homeland, and to protect people, the armed forces have been called to eliminate the militants and terrorists," said Gilani, dressed symbolically in traditional Pakistani dress.
"The time has come when the entire nation should side with the government and the armed forces against those who want to make the entire country hostage and darken our future at gunpoint," the premier added.
Thousands of civilians streamed out of the Taliban stronghold and former tourist resort of Swat on foot or crammed into cars in the face of the fighting, as the Red Cross warned that the humanitarian crisis was escalating.
Pakistan is under heavy US pressure to crush militants, whom Washington have called the biggest terror threat to the West. US President Barack Obama has put the nuclear-armed Muslim country at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda.
"(The operation) is going to carry on until life in Swat comes back to normalcy," Zardari told reporters at the US Capitol after meeting key senators.
"It's a regional problem, it's a worldwide problem," Zardari said. "I think the world is coming to that realisation," he added.
Following talks with Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Senator John Kerry said the US Congress would urgently complete an aid bill to stabilise Pakistan.
Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Kabul, praised Pakistan's action against the Taliban.
And despite mounting concern among US lawmakers that the country is increasingly unstable, he expressed confidence that its nuclear arsenal was secure.
The military said nine soldiers had died in the past 24 hours in Swat, including seven killed when militants ambushed troop reinforcements at the entry to Mingora, the main town in the northwest district.
It was one of the deadliest days for the military since government forces resumed offensives against the Taliban as the rebels advanced further south towards the capital Islamabad, violating the terms of the February peace deal.
Vowing victory, army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani said the army would deploy "requisite resources to ensure a decisive ascendancy over the militants" as the peace deal unravelled.
The government in North West Frontier Province said more than 150,000 displaced people were living in temporary conditions including camps as they fled the fighting, although it did not say when or how long ago they had fled.
"A mortar shell hit the outer wall of my house last night," said Nasir Jamal, a medical shop owner.
"Luckily, we survived. I feel God has given me an opportunity I can't miss. I'm leaving. Swat is not worth living in," he added.
"Civilians are suffering at the hands of both the army and the Taliban. The Taliban are killing residents who don't side with them," he said.
The military said someone described as a key Taliban commander leading attacks was killed in the notorious Swat militant bastion of Matta on Thursday.
A son of the pro-Taliban cleric who signed the February agreement was also killed in Lower Dir, a district adjacent to Swat, on Thursday.
The military said 10 militants, including Sufi Mohammad's son, were killed during an exchange of fire with paramilitary forces.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that a humanitarian crisis is escalating in the northwest, where the government has made preparations for up to half a million displaced from Swat.