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Pakistani Army Ordered To Avoid Civilian Casualties

Internally displaced women, fleeing from military operations against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley and Buner, at a makeshift camp in Mardan

Internally displaced women, fleeing from military operations against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley and Buner, at a makeshift camp in Mardan

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan's army chief has ordered his men to ensure civilian casualties are kept to a minimum, even if that meant danger for them, in an offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley.

The offensive, launched last week after the United States accused the government of "abdicating" to militants, has broad political and public support.

But that could change if many civilians are killed or if the hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting suffer unduly.

"[Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani] has instructed the army to ensure minimum collateral damage, even at the expense of taking risks, by resorting to precision strikes," the army said in a statement.

The offensive was launched when President Asif Ali Zardari was in Washington assuring a nervous United States his government was not about to collapse and was committed to fighting militancy.

Pakistani action against militants in its northwest is vital for U.S. efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan.

About 15,000 security forces members face about 5,000 militants in the region, the military says.

Government aircraft attacked militants in the Peochar Valley on May 13, military officials said. Helicopter-borne soldiers swooped into the Taliban stronghold of Peochar, a side valley northwest off the main Swat Valley, on May 12.

Security forces established a firm hold in Peochar that night and the militants were being attacked, the military said. Eleven militants and five soldiers had been killed in various clashes in Swat over the previous 24 hours, it said.

A military spokesman said on May 12 that 751 militants had been killed in the offensive, while 29 soldiers had been killed and 77 wounded. Reporters have left Swat and there was no independent confirmation of that estimate of militant casualties.

A Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, said only seven of his men had been killed.

"Taliban morale is high. All areas are still under our control," Khan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Khan also threatened members of parliament from the Swat area, saying they should resign or their families would be hunted down and their property destroyed.

Beheaded Bodies

The military says there have been no reports of civilian casualties in its actions as soldiers were targeting militants in hideouts in mountains and urban warfare had not started.

Five beheaded bodies had been found in different parts of Mingora, Swat's main town, it said.

The region has been under a curfew for days, apart from a couple of breaks to let people flee.

Residents began fleeing late last month when the army attacked the Taliban in two districts near Swat they had occupied in violation of a February peace pact aimed at ending violence in the former tourist valley.

As the fighting picked up, a stream of displaced turned into a flood.

A senior military official overseeing help for internally displaced people (IDPs) said on May 12 an estimated 800,000 civilians had fled from the latest fighting.

They were joining about 500,000 displaced by earlier fighting in the northwest, said Brigadier Aamir Raza Qureshi.

The UN refugee agency says it has registered more than 500,000 displaced from the latest fighting. Many people are believed not to have bothered to register.

The United Nations has warned of a protracted humanitarian crisis for a country already being propped up by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

While collateral damage and displacement were a natural outcome of such an offensive, Kayani said managing the displaced was as important as the military operation, the army statement said.

It said the army, which played a major role in helping survivors of a big earthquake in 2005, was donating part of its rations to the relief effort, enough to feed about 80,000 adults a day.

The United States has donated $4.9 million for basic supplies such as tents, blankets, and cooking kits while Britain had donated 10 million pounds ($15.19 million), their embassies said.