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Pakistani Jets Pound Militants In Northwest

Pakistani soldiers stand guard atop a mountain overlooking the Swat Valley on May 22.

Pakistani soldiers stand guard atop a mountain overlooking the Swat Valley on May 22.

GHALJO, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani aircraft have bombed Taliban militants in the Orakzai ethnic Pashtun region, killing at least seven, while soldiers battled insurgents in the main town of the Swat region, government officials said.

Pakistan, a vital ally of the United States as it struggles to bring stability to neighboring Afghanistan, is engaged in its most concerted effort to roll back a spreading Taliban insurgency that has thrown the nuclear-armed country's future into question.

The army launched an offensive in Swat this month after the militants, emboldened by a controversial peace deal, pushed out of the former tourist valley to conquer neighboring districts, including one just 100 kilometers northwest of Islamabad.

While the army has been focusing on eliminating the Taliban from their Swat bastion, the situation in other militant strongholds on the Afghan border has been relatively quiet.

But on May 24, government forces attacked a group of militants in Orakzai who were preparing to travel to the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border to fight the army there, security officials said.

Government fighter aircraft bombed militant hideouts in several strikes on three villages over the course of several hours, said Yaseen Khan, a senior government official in the region's main town of Ghaljo.

"We have seven confirmed dead, but there must be a bigger number of casualties as these were very precise and accurate strikes," Khan told Reuters.

A Taliban spokesman in the region, Maulvi Haider, said 13 of his men had been killed and he vowed revenge.

"We'll hit back and our target could be anywhere in Pakistan," Haider said by telephone.

Residents said the aircraft had struck a madrasah, or Islamic religious school, which was being used by the militants.

The elimination of militant strongholds on the border, from where they orchestrate their war in Afghanistan, is vital for U.S. plans to defeat the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

President Asif Ali Zardari told Britain's "Sunday Times" newspaper in an interview published a week ago that after Swat, the army would move against militants in Waziristan.

However, he was later reported to have denied that.

'Painfuly Slow'

The army said on May 23 that street fighting had erupted in Mingora, the main town in Swat, as security forces mounted a new phase of their offensive.

Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a news conference the operation in Mingora was likely to be slow because security forces wanted to avoid civilian casualties.

He said the majority of Mingora's residents had moved out and only 5 to 10 percent of the population was still in the town. He feared that militants could use them as "human shields".

"The pace of the operation will be painfully slow. So be patient but the operation has started and, God willing, we are going to take it to a logical conclusion," Abbas said.

Pakistan says more than 1,000 militants and more than 50 soldiers have been killed in the fighting. There has been no independent confirmation of those estimates.

About 15,000 members of the security forces are fighting 4,000 to 5,000 militants in Swat, the army says.

The fighting has forced nearly 1.7 million people from their homes. About 555,000 people had fled earlier fighting in the region.

The United Nations has warned of a long-term humanitarian crisis and on May 22 launched a $543 million "flash appeal" to help the displaced.