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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan security forces are near the end of their offensive in the Swat valley, the army said on Monday, with more than 40,000 people on the move before the next phase starts against the Pakistani Taliban's headquarters.
The offensive in Swat, 120 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, came after Taliban gains raised fears for the future of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a vital ally for the United States as it strives to defeat al Qaeda and stabilise Afghanistan.
Nearly 2 million people have fled fighting in the northwest, most since early May when the army pushed into the former tourist valley of Swat, and the United Nations is appealing for $543 million in aid to avert a long-term humanitarian crisis.
"The security forces are in the final phase of eliminating terrorist hideouts and camps in Swat," chief military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told a media briefing.
Sporadic clashes were going on as the military cleared the militants' last strongholds in the scenic valley, and 22 militants had been killed in the previous 24 hours, he said.
"The search operations are continuing in the secured areas to ensure that areas are safe for the return of IDPs," he said, referring to internally displaced people.
The fragile civilian government which came to power last year is keen to see displaced people go home as quickly as possible.
The government has the support of most political parties and members of the public for the offensive but it risks seeing that evaporate if the displaced are seen to suffer unduly.
The United States, alarmed by Taliban aggression earlier in the year, has been heartened by the military action and will be keen to see similar action against factions, including the Afghan Taliban, who attack into Afghanistan from Pakistani enclaves.
India also wants so see action against militants based in Pakistan who are involved in an insurgency against Indian forces in its part of the disputed Kashmir region.
In all, 1,592 militants had been killed in the Swat offensive, Abbas said. More than 100 soldiers have been killed, the military says. There has been no independent confirmation of the military's casualty figures.
While the military has pushed the militants out of most of Swat, there had been no word on the fate of their leaders.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the Taliban leader in Swat, Fazlullah, had been wounded. Abbas said there was no hard evidence and intelligence agencies were trying to confirm reports some Taliban leaders had been wounded and a few had been killed.
With the Swat offensive in its final stages, fighter jets attacked militant positions in South Waziristan near the Afghan border, killing four and wounding several, residents and intelligence officials said.
South Waziristan is the headquarters of Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who has been accused of a string of bomb attacks, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
The government has ordered the military to attack Mehsud's strongholds. Air strikes on his bases have been launched and the main road into the remote, mountainous region secured. Abbas said security forces were being "pre-positioned" before the offensive.
"His network, the factory that he has set up where classes of suicide bombing and training are being conducted ... should be destroyed, overrun and dismantled," Abbas said.
He did not say when the offensive would be launched.
More than 40,000 civilians are moving out of South Waziristan even before it begins, threatening to compound the humanitarian crisis.
Colonel Waseem Ahmed, spokesman for the government unit overseeing relief efforts, said at least 60,000 civilians were expected to flee.
U.N. special humanitarian envoy Abdul Aziz Arrukban told Reuters only about 35 percent of the $543 million in aid the United Nations is seeking had been given. U.N. aid operations in Pakistan cost about $2 million a day, he said.
Pakistan is being kept afloat by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan, underscoring the need for outside help for the displaced.
Additional reporting by Paul Tait