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Pakistan Army Chief Says Tide Has Turned In Swat

Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (right) with troops in Swat Valley in mid-May

Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (right) with troops in Swat Valley in mid-May

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan's army chief has said before a meeting U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke that his forces have "turned the tide" against Taliban fighters and aim to completely eradicate them from the Swat Valley.

Pakistan launched an offensive to expel Taliban militants from Swat last month in a move welcomed by Western allies worried that the nuclear-armed country was sliding into chaos.

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani said the main towns as well as roads leading to the valley had been cleared of "organized resistance by the terrorists."

"The tide in Swat has decisively turned," a military statement issued late on June 4 quoted him as saying.

He said the army would stay in Swat to provide security to the people and would carry out operations on a "limited scale" to eliminate remaining militant hideouts and sanctuaries in Swat and nearby districts.

Holbrooke said the United States was encouraged by the firm action taken by Pakistan, whose support is vital in a broader campaign to defeat Al-Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama's point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan was set to meet Kayani, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the last day of a visit that began on June 3.

The envoy has said the United States aimed to give Pakistan $200 million, in addition to $110 million already pledged, to aid some 2.5 million people displaced by the conflict in the northwest.

He also urged European and Islamic nations to do more to help.

Humanitarian Crisis

The military says more than 1,200 militants and 90 soldiers have been killed in the Swat offensive, which has garnered wide support from major political parties and among the public and media.

The army retook Swat's main town of Mingora last week, raising hopes that many of the displaced people will soon be allowed to return home.

Analysts fear public backing for the offensive could dwindle unless the humanitarian crisis starts to subside.

Holbrooke said he aimed to discuss with Pakistani leaders the next phase of holding, securing and rehabilitating Swat after the operation to clear the valley had been completed.

The United Nations has launched an appeal to raise $543 million, but Manuel Bessler, head of the UN Organization for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told reporters in Islamabad that a little more than a fifth had been received so far.

Pakistani authorities had hoped to pacify Swat and neighboring areas by conceding to the militants' demands for the imposition of Islamic sharia law, but the Taliban began expanding their influence into nearby districts after the deal, raising concerns at home and abroad about the stability of the country.

The military said three senior aides to Sufi Mohammad, a cleric who brokered the February peace deal, had been arrested in a raid on a madrasah, or Islamic school, in the northwest on June 4.

Kayani said the forces were aggressively hunting senior Taliban leaders in the region.