(CBS/ AP) Pakistani security forces have entered the main town in a northwestern valley where Taliban fighters are holed up, engaging the militants in fierce street fights, the army's top spokesman said Saturday.
Capturing the town of Mingora is critical to Pakistani efforts to regain the Swat Valley and prevent it from being a safe haven for insurgents increasingly threatening the Muslim nation's stability. It could prove a major test for a military more geared toward conventional warfare on plains than bloody urban battles.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas also told reporters Saturday that at least 17 alleged militants had been killed over the previous 24 hours in the offensive.
The military operation has strong support from Washington. Insurgents in northwestern Pakistan also launch attacks across the border on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Ajab Gul, a taxi driver from Swat who arrived in Islamabad as an internally displaced person (IDP) this week, narrated a harrowing account of how he fled Mingora when the curfew was relaxed about a week ago.
"Our family had not eaten for a day so when the curfew was relaxed, we had no choice but to leave" he said of his wife and their five children in an interview with CBS News. "Swat had making worse than hell. The Taliban brought us misery. Now the military is destroying everything in our land," he said.
Donors to Pakistan on Thursday pledged US$224 million in emergency assistance to Pakistan for the IDPs, CBS News reporter Farhan Bokhari reports.
A Western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said, once the battle gets over, the people of Swat will face the possibility of returning to destroyed neighborhoods and destroyed homes, left without basic amenities including electricity.
"Then would come the real challenge. People would hold the military responsible for this destruction. It is important for Pakistan to consider how best it can move quickly to begin repairing the damage," he said.
The military says more than 1,000 suspected insurgents have died so far in the month-old offensive, figures nearly impossible to verify independently because of limited access to the region.
"Street fights have begun," Abbas said. "It is a difficult operation because we have to make a house-to-house search. We have cleared some of the area in the city."
The offensive in Swat and surrounding areas has triggered an exodus of nearly 1.9 million refugees, more than 160,000 to camps and many of the rest to stay with relatives, friends or in rented rooms.
Some fear that the generally broad public support for the military campaign could drain away if the refugees' plight worsens or if the army gets bogged down too long. The U.N. on Friday appealed for $543 million to provide food, schooling and health care to the displaced.
Also Saturday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani downplayed the chances the army would expand the offensive to the lawless, semiautonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan where militants have long had strongholds.
Reports that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said such an expansion was in the works have already led some families to leave the South Waziristan tribal area, the main base of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
However, many believe it would be difficult for the army to go into another territory before it finishes clearing the Taliban from Swat, which could take months.
"It is not like this," Gilani said in response to a reporter's question about a possible new front in the offensive. "We are not foolish to do it everywhere."
Still, Gilani insisted the government would not allow anyone to challenge its authority.
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