Taliban 'on the run' after Pakistan offensive

Pakistan's military said Saturday a full-scale offensive in the northwest has put militants on the back foot following a pledge from President Asif Ali Zardari to eliminate the Taliban, AFP reported.

Warplanes pounded rebel hideouts in the Swat valley, an ex-ski resort where up to 15,000 security forces have been deployed under orders to crush extremists in an escalating conflict that has displaced hundreds of thousands.

"They are on the run," the army said in a statement, without making clear exactly how much progress it had made in driving militants from their positions.

But the statement added that Taliban fighters were "trying to block the exodus of innocent civilians by preventing their departure through coercion, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), road blocks with trees and even (making them) hostages".

Meanwhile a suspected US drone fired missiles at a compound used by militants in South Waziristan tribal district bordering Afghanistan, killing six militants and injuring 10 others, officials said.

The military said Friday an air and ground offensive to crush the Taliban in the northwest killed more than 140 militants.

It was impossible to confirm the death tolls independently, given ongoing operations across three districts which began late last month when the hardline insurgents advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Islamabad.

Meanwhile, fresh troops were entering the Malakand district which neighbours Swat valley, a local military official told AFP.

People fleeing the area, however, have accused the military of also killing civilians in the fierce bombardment.

Aftaba Begum, 60, told AFP in Jalala refugee camp near the town of Mardan that she had fractured her leg as shells from helicopter gunships hit Mingora three days ago.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who is on a state visit to the United States, has pledged to eliminate the Taliban.

"This is an offensive -- this is war. If they kill our soldiers, then we do the same," Zardari told PBS public television Friday, during a visit to Washington.

Pressed on whether Pakistan's stated goal of "eliminating" militants meant killing them, Zardari replied: "Eliminate means exactly what it means."

The UN refugee agency has warned up to one million people have been displaced in northwest Pakistan, with tens of thousands streaming out of Buner, Lower Dir and Swat, registering in camps or sheltering with families.

The government has said it was bracing to cope with half a million people displaced by the fighting.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani after told a press conference after meeting his cabinet on Saturday that the army would minimise civilian casualties while the government would look after those displaced by the conflict.

"It is our resolve and it is the resolve of the armed forces that there should be minimum collateral damage and the operation should be over as soon as possible," Gilani said.

"The operation will continue till the elimination of extremists."

Gilani announced the setting up of a 200 million rupee (2.5 million dollar) fund for the displaced and said cabinet ministers would donate a month's salary each.

The fighting has sunk a controversial February deal between the government and an Islamist hardliner that aimed to put three million people under sharia law in a bid to end the Taliban uprising.

Critics said the deal emboldened the Taliban and have welcomed the renewed military offensive, which also has broad public support.

They have warned that Pakistan must move to rebuild lives shattered by the action if it is to be a success.

The offensive was launched after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani late Thursday appealed for unity against extremists whom he said were risking the sovereignty of the nuclear-armed nation and violated the peace deal.

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