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Thousands flee bombardment as Pakistan claims progress

MINGORA, Pakistan — Pakistani warplanes pounded the Taliban-held Swat Valley on Saturday in what the prime minister called a "war of the country's survival."

The government claimed significant gains and blamed militants for endangering noncombatants by firing indiscriminately and basing themselves in civilian homes.

As terrified people continued to flee the fighting, the outskirts of the conflict areas faced a critical need for shelter and supplies. Desperate refugees looted U.N. supplies in one camp, taking blankets and cooking oil.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has registered more than 120,000 residents displaced from the three contested districts — Swat, Buner and Dir — and surrounding areas, and warned that several hundred thousand more are likely to leave.

Even the medics are gone: Only three doctors remained Saturday at the hospital in Swat's main town of Mingora.

Warplanes and troops killed dozens of entrenched militants Saturday in the assault on northwestern Swat Valley, the army said. The military claims are impossible to verify, as aid agencies and journalists are barred from the conflict areas.

A suspected U.S. missile strike killed nine people, mostly foreigners, in South Waziristan, another militant stronghold near the Afghan border, Pakistani intelligence officials said. The identities of the victims remained unclear.

A provincial official, Iftikhar Hussain, accused the Taliban of causing civilian deaths. "The militants are using the civilian population as a human shield, and they have dug trenches in civilian areas," Hussain said in Peshawar.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani directed millions of dollars to help the residents of a region where faith in the government is shaky, saying the army "can only be successful if there is support of the masses." He called the Swat offensive a "war of the country's survival" but said the military could win.

Pakistan's army is fighting to wrest Swat and neighboring districts from militants who dominate the adjoining tribal belt along the Afghan frontier, where U.S. officials say al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is likely holed up.

The Pakistani army has estimated that 4,000 militants took advantage of a peace agreement in northwestern Pakistan in February to seize control of much of Swat.

Thousands flee bombardment as Pakistan claims progress 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 8:36pm]
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