ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The Pakistani military claimed victory yesterday in a key Taliban stronghold in the beleaguered Swat Valley. But the government found itself hunkering down against a new battlefront - a bombing campaign in the country's cities.
Pakistani troops have complete control over the city of Mingora, with clashes lingering only on its outskirts, a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said at a briefing yesterday.
Only a week ago, the military said it was expecting a long, hard-fought battle with Taliban fighters who had fortified themselves in the northwestern city's hotels and buildings. It now appears that, after initially putting up stiff resistance, many militants chose to flee.
"When they realized that they were being encircled and the noose was tightening, they decided not to give a pitched battle," Abbas said.
But the militants may have decided to fight another way: seeding fear through well-coordinated bombing attacks.
Bombers struck in three Pakistani cities last week. On Wednesday in Lahore, gunmen attacked a building housing local police and Pakistani intelligence agents before detonating explosives in a van, killing 27 people.
A day later, attackers set off bombs on motorcycles parked outside busy markets in Peshawar, the largest city in northwest Pakistan, and attacked police with gunfire. At least six people were killed in that attack and more than 50 injured. That night, suicide bomb attacks killed four police officers on the outskirts of Peshawar and two people in the northwest city of Dera Ismail Khan.
As a result, security was tightened in Islamabad, the capital, and other major cities. In Peshawar, a pall of fear hung over the city as Pakistanis avoided mosques and bazaars. Schools and colleges were shut down, and extra police patrolled the streets.
Pakistan launched the offensive about a month ago to rid the Swat Valley of the Taliban. Troops have retaken large sections of Swat once controlled by the Taliban, but the offensive has also resulted in a massive exodus of Pakistanis fleeing the fighting.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said that as many as three million people have fled their homes and sought refuge either in tent camps or with friends and relatives.
The offensive has the support of the Obama administration, which had grown increasingly concerned about the Taliban's expanding control over northwest Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. Earlier this spring, the Taliban had extended its reach into the Buner district outside Swat, only 60 miles from Islamabad.
Yesterday, military officials said the leader of the Taliban in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, remained at large.
Pakistani officials have acknowledged that they cannot stop Taliban fighters from escaping the fighting. Authorities say fleeing Taliban fighters have been shaving off their beards and losing themselves among the masses of refugees streaming into tent camps set up near Mardan, Peshawar, Karachi, and Islamabad.
Last week, Pakistani authorities arrested 39 suspected Taliban militants in refugee camps or at houses where refugees were staying. Pakistani troops have been able to establish checkpoints on roads in Swat to ferret out fleeing Taliban, Abbas said, but they lack the manpower to patrol the myriad footpaths that run through the picturesque valley.
Since the military offensive to oust the Taliban from Swat and surrounding regions began, more than 1,200 militants have been killed and 79 have been captured, Abbas said. He said that 81 Pakistani troops had died in the fighting and did not release any figures on civilian casualties.
The military's claims about the offensive cannot be verified because the government greatly restricts journalists from accessing the conflict zone.
Mingora was supposed to pose a severe challenge for Pakistani troops, who faced Taliban fighters entrenched in an urban environment with mines, fortifications and hidden weapons caches prepared to fend off the offensive.
Abbas said the militants had built bunkers in the city's hotels and government buildings. But after a round of fierce fighting at the start of the advance, Taliban militants escaped.
The fighting left the city's infrastructure decimated, Abbas said. Restoring electricity is expected to take at least two weeks, and Pakistani officials said they did not know when refugees from Mingora could return to their homes.
As many as 20,000 civilians remained behind after the rest of the city's population of 375,000 fled and sought refuge.
Pakistani authorities said that they had been able to get some food and other aid to those civilians, but that more is needed. A medical team was being sent to the city to reopen Mingora's hospital.
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