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May 24, 2009
Taliban could use human shields
Pitched battles raged in the Swat Valley's main urban centre on Saturday, and the Army warned that Taliban could use human shields.
Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas also warned that the operation in Mingora town could be "painfully slow," noting some 10,000 to 20,000 civilians are still trapped there.
"The terrorists are going to use (civilians) as human shields. They are going to make them hostage, so we are moving very carefully," Abbas said.
"The pace of the operation will be painfully slow. So keep patient. But the operation has started and, God willing, we are going to take it to the logical conclusion."
The prospect of an assault on Mingora, which has loomed for days, has raised fears of a bloody battle and the possibility of civilian casualties.
US-based Human Rights Watch earlier this week quoted residents as saying the Taliban had mined Mingora and "prevented many civilians from fleeing, using them as 'human shields' to deter attack."
The group also said Pakistani forces "appeared to have taken insufficient precautionary measures in aerial and artillery attacks that have caused a high loss of civilian life."
The fight also could prove a major test for a military more geared towards conventional warfare on plains than bloody urban battles.
Pakistan's army has long been more structured around fighting a conventional battle against rival India on the plains of the Punjab region using tanks and artillery.
It has limited experience battling guerrillas in urban settings. Many Taliban fighters can simply blend into the population or melt away to the hillsides.
Abbas said parts of Mingora had already been cleared and that 17 militants, including an important commander, were killed during the most recent fighting of Pakistan's northwest offensive.
He said another major town, Matta, was cleared of militants.
But some 1,500 to 2,000 insurgents remained in Swat - hard-core fighters, he said.
"Today the most important phase of operation Rah-e-Rast, the clearance of Mingora, has commenced," the military said in a statement on its website.
"In the last 24 hours, security forces have entered Mingora; 17 miscreants-terrorists, including important miscreant commander were killed," added the statement, written in English.
The ground assault on Mingora, a city with an estimated population of around 300,000 - of whom many have fled - marks the most crucial part of the military's blistering offensive against the Taliban in the scenic valley.
Mingora has effectively been under Taliban control for weeks and - as the administrative and business hub of the entire district - its capture is essential for the military to be able to declare ultimate victory in Swat. The military says about 1,100 suspected insurgents have died so far in the month-old offensive.
It has not given any tally of civilian deaths, and it's unclear how it is separating regular citizens killed from militants.
Residents fleeing the region have reported dozens of ordinary Pakistanis killed in the fight.
Abbas also said no civilians were killed during the operation in Matta.
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