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Pakistan Aims To Kill Leaders Of Taliban In Swat

A newspaper featuring mugshots of radical cleric Maulana Fazlluah and other militants hangs on a tree at a roadside stall in Islamabad.
MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani authorities are preparing for the return of residents to Swat's main town but decisive victory will only be won when Taliban leaders are dead, an army commander has said.

The army began battling Taliban militants in the region in late April, after a militant thrust into a district 100 kilometers northwest of the capital raised fears at home and abroad that the nuclear-armed country could slowly slip into militant hands.

The army has secured the main town of Mingora and pushed militants out of many other parts of the Swat Valley, until recently famous for its ski slopes and summer hiking. But the fighting has also forced about 2 million people from their homes.

There are no independent casualty estimates but the army says more than 1,230 militants have been killed, while it has lost more than 90 men. But Taliban leaders in Swat have apparently escaped the army's fire.

Major General Ijaz Awan, an army commander in Swat, said conclusive victory would only be won when they were killed.

"Their death is vital to kill their myth," Awan told a group of reporters flown to Swat by the army on June 3.

The United States, which criticized a February peace pact with the Taliban in Swat as tantamount to abdicating to the militants, has applauded the offensive.

U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke arrived in Pakistan saying he wanted to assess relief efforts for the displaced and see how the United States could help more.

"The government responded appropriately to a direct challenge to its authority," Holbrooke told Geo TV.

The United States needs Pakistani help to defeat Al-Qaeda and subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan. While Swat is not on the Afghan border, there was a danger it could have become a bastion for militants fighting across the region.

Army To Stay

Swat's Mingora town has been under curfew for most of the past three weeks and looked completely deserted on June 3.

Buildings at several intersections had been badly damaged and broken glass and debris were scattered across the ground. But most buildings in the rest of Mingora appeared intact.

Beyond the town, the Swat River snakes through green fields and orchards that cover the valley floor.

Awan told reporters in a briefing at a post near Mingora the army had been ordered not to use heavy weapons or air strikes in the town to minimize damage.

Civilian casualties had been "very few," he said.

About 35,000 to 40,000 out of a total population of 350,000 remained in Mingora, Awan said. The army has been trucking in food and other supplies for them.

Awan said from a military point of view displaced civilians could start to come home, but the town's water and electricity supplies had to be restored and that would take two weeks.

From June 17, the displaced were expected to begin returning, he said. Authorities would screen people coming back to weed out any militants trying to slip back.

The government is raising a community police force to help with security, he said. Many poorly equipped and trained policemen melted away in the face of Taliban aggression.

But the army would remain in the valley for at least a year, even if the entire region was cleared of militants, Awan said.

The army pushed militants from the valley with an offensive in late 2007 but the Taliban drifted back when the army withdrew.

That wouldn't happen again, he said.

"The army as a force is going to stay here," he said.