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Residents asked to leave homes in Pakistan's Swat


MINGORA, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities urged people on Tuesday in the Swat Valley's main town to leave their homes for safer places as security forces could soon launch an offensive against Taliban militants there.

A February peace pact aimed at ending Taliban violence in the Swat valley northwest of the capital has all but collapsed as the government comes under U.S. pressure to get tough with the militants rather than appease them.

President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington on Wednesday for talks on the growing militant threat in the region.

Militants had infiltrated into five districts of Mingora, the main town in Swat, and begun attacking security forces and government installations, said the top government official in the valley, Khushal Khan Khattak.

“We have relaxed the curfew today and asked residents to leave their areas because security forces may engage militants and we want to avoid civilian casualties,” Mr. Khattak told Reuters.

Increasing violence and the spread of the Taliban have raised alarm in the United States about the ability of the nuclear-armed country, whose help is vital in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, to stand up to the militants.

Residents of Mingora said militants had surrounded a paramilitary force base at a power station in the town and others had taken up positions on buildings and were patrolling streets.

Mr. Khattak declined to comment on the situation at the base but a senior military official in the region said an operation might be launched to rescue 46 paramilitary soldiers besieged there.

“We're acting with restraint because they're using civilians as a shield but we'll go after them if the situation gets worse,” said the military official, who declined to be identified.

The February peace pact, under which authorities agreed to a Taliban demand for introduction of Islamic sharia law in the former tourist valley, led to accusations from critics both at home and abroad that the government was caving in to militancy.

The Taliban refused to give up their guns and pushed into Buner district, only 100 kilometres northwest of Islamabad, and another district adjacent to Swat last month, intent on spreading their rule.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month accused Islamabad of abdicating to the Taliban while Obama expressed grave concern the government was “very fragile” and unable to deliver basic services.

Amid the mounting concern, security forces launched an offensive to expel militants from Buner and another district on April 26.

About 180 militants have been killed, according to the military, although there has been no independent confirmation.

At this week's Washington talks, Mr. Zardari is expected to do his utmost to convince Mr. Obama the government is on the right track and needs help. Mr. Obama will present Mr. Zardari and Mr. Karzai with his strategy for defeating al-Qaeda.

Swat, about 130 kilometres northwest of Islamabad, is not on the Afghan border. Nevertheless, Western countries with troops in Afghanistan fear the area could turn into a bastion for militants fighting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Earlier on Tuesday, a suicide car-bomber killed four security men in an attack on a checkpoint near the main northwestern city of Peshawar.

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