MARDAN, Pakistan — The Pakistani military said it killed 55 Taliban in the Swat Valley on Friday and that it had lifted a curfew so that thousands more civilians could flee the area in advance of an expected operation against militants in the largest town.
Taliban fighters reportedly are deeply entrenched in the town of Mingora, and the military is bracing for house-to-house fighting.
The army also warned that militants may shave off their characteristic beards and shaggy locks in order to blend in with the fleeing refugees. Government officials appealed to citizens to identify any militants in their midst and issued a phone number so that citizens could pass along anonymous tips.
Pakistan began operations in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts last month following intense U.S. pressure for action against extremists eroding the stability of the nuclear-armed state and attacking U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
The offensive is shaping up as a major test of the will and ability of the often-criticized army to defeat the militants. The extremists fought the military to a stalemate in Swat last year, forcing the country's embattled politicians to accept a peace deal.
The army said it was advancing slowly in Swat to minimize civilian casualties and property damage. Aid groups and the media have not been allowed into the conflict area. There has been little independent verification of the daily military reports — including Friday's report of Taliban casualties.
Afghan deaths: Human Rights Watch accused the U.S. military of not doing enough to reduce civilian casualties during battles in Afghanistan and called Friday for changes to prevent civilian deaths such as those on May 4-5. Afghans blame airstrikes for the deaths in two villages in western Farah province. U.S. officials say the Taliban held villagers hostage during the fight.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.