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Pakistan troops hit Taliban ground

MARDAN, Pakistan — Helicopters dropped Pakistani commandos into a Taliban stronghold in the Swat Valley on Tuesday, pressing ahead with an offensive that began after heavy U.S. pressure to deal with the rise of Taliban militants.

The army said it had yet to start operations in the region's main town of Swat, where witnesses say Taliban insurgents are in control and preparing for what could be bloody fighting.

Farther south, a suspected U.S. missile attack flattened a house and killed at least eight people in another militant bastion near the Afghan border, officials said, in the latest in a series of attacks that have strained U.S. and Pakistani ties.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik expressed optimism the battle might prove short.

"The way they (militants) are being beaten, the way their recruits are fleeing, and the way the Pakistan army is using its strategy, God willing the operation will be completed very soon," he said.

Pakistani authorities launched the assault on Swat and surrounding districts last week after the Taliban pushed out from the valley on the back of a now-defunct peace deal and extended their control to areas just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

The Pakistani army said Tuesday that troops backed by artillery and airstrikes had killed 751 militants in Swat and neighboring districts so far. It was unclear how it calculated that figure, which couldn't be independently verified. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, an army spokesman, said the army lost 29 soldiers and had no reports of civilian casualties. Accounts from refugees suggest there has been significant loss of innocent life.

The offensive has also unleashed a tide of refugees.

An army officer said Tuesday that the total number displaced in the northwest — including some half-million who fled the Bajur border region last year — had risen to 1.3 million.

At United Nations headquarters in New York, President Asif Ali Zardari appealed to the world on Tuesday to help those forced to flee their homes.

The U.N. has registered 501,000 refugees from the latest fighting. About 73,000 are living in hot, tented camps established just south of the war zone. Officials acknowledge that many more have taken refuge with relatives without registering with the authorities.

Pakistan troops hit Taliban ground 05/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 10:49pm]

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