MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities are preparing for the return of residents to Swat’s main town but decisive victory will only be won when Taliban leaders are dead, an army commander said on Wednesday.
The army began battling Taliban in the region in late April, after a militant thrust into a district 100 km (60 miles) northwest of the capital raised fear at home and abroad that the nuclear-armed country could slowly slip into militant hands.
The army has secured the main town of Mingora and pushed militants out of many other parts of the Swat valley, until recently famous for its ski slopes and summer hiking. But the fighting has also forced about 2 million people from their homes.
There are no independent casualty estimates but the army says more than 1,230 militants have been killed, while it has lost more than 90 men. But Taliban leaders in Swat have apparently escaped the army’s fire.
Major-General Ijaz Awan, an army commander in Swat, said conclusive victory would only be won when they were killed.
“Their death is vital to kill their myth,” Awan told a group of reporters flown to Swat by the army on Wednesday.
The United States, which criticised a February peace pact with the Taliban in Swat as tantamount to abdicating to the militants, has applauded the offensive.
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke arrived in Pakistan saying he wanted to assess relief efforts for the displaced and see how the United States could help more.
“We believe that the actions taken by the Pakistani government and military in recent weeks have been necessary, essential, and have improved the situation, but the fighting is still going on, there’s a lot more to go,” Holbrooke told Geo TV.
Holbrooke also said the United States aimed to give Pakistan $200 million, in addition to $110 million already pledged, for help for the displaced.
The United States needs Pakistani help to defeat al Qaeda and subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan. While Swat is not on the Afghan border, there was a danger it could have become a bastion for militants fighting across the region.
President Asif Ali Zardari told the news conference it was too soon to say the war was going well.
“We have a war of ideology to fight ... once we’ve won the hearts and minds of the people in the region, then I’ll say we’ve progressed,” Zardari said.
Militants have responded to the offensive in Swat with a series of bomb attacks in towns and cities and on Monday, Taliban seized a convoy of students and staff from a college.
The next morning, soldiers blocked the convoy as the militants were taking the captives to South Waziristan, a militant stronghold on the Afghan border, and rescued all 71 students and nine staff members, the army said.
But distraught parents gathered outside a government office on Wednesday saying their children were still being held.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said 47 people, five of them college staff, were being held and authorities were making every effort to secure their release.
Swat’s Mingora town has been under curfew for most of the past three weeks and looked completely deserted on Wednesday.
Buildings at several intersections had been badly damaged and broken glass and debris were scattered across the ground. But most buildings in the rest of Mingora appeared intact.
Beyond the town, the Swat river snakes through green fields and orchards that cover the valley floor.
Awan told reporters in a briefing at a post near Mingora the army had been ordered not to use heavy weapons to minimise damage. Civilian casualties had been “very few”, he said.
About 35,000 to 40,000 out of a total population of 350,000 remained in Mingora, Awan said. The army has been trucking in food and other supplies for them.
Awan said from a military point of view displaced civilians could start to come home, but the town’s water and electricity supplies had to be restored and that would take two weeks.
From June 17, the displaced were expected to begin returning, he said. The government is raising a community police force to help with security but the army would remain in the valley for at least a year, Awan said.
The army pushed militants from the valley with an offensive in late 2007 but the Taliban drifted back when the army withdrew.
That wouldn’t happen again, he said.
“The army as a force is going to stay here,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Alamgir Bitani, Javed Hussain