ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani government on May 17 urged people stranded in Swat to flee whenever they get a chance, as security forces battled Taliban militants in one of their strongholds in the valley.
The army launched an offensive in Swat more than a week ago to stop the spread of Taliban influence after the collapse of a peace pact that the United States criticized as tantamount to "abdicating" to the militants.
Militant violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan has surged over the past two years, raising fears for its stability and alarming the United States, which needs Pakistani action to help defeat Al-Qaeda and bring stability to neighboring Afghanistan.
More than 1,000 militants had been killed in the offensive in Swat, Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told reporters. There was no independent confirmation of the toll.
The military has reported a similar toll for the militants and has said 48 soldiers have been killed.
The offensive in the one-time tourist valley, 130 kilometers northwest of Islamabad, has also forced at least 1.17 million people from their homes, the UN refugee agency said.
It has urged the world to respond "massively" to the humanitarian crisis.
The Taliban holds Mingora, Swat's main town, and many civilians are believed to be still there.
"I appeal to the people of Mingora and other parts which are under aggression, as soon as they get an opportunity, the curfew is relaxed, they should come out," Malik said.
Malik also said the security forces were hunting for the leaders of the Taliban in Swat.
"Those leaders, those commanders, who are controlling the Taliban, obviously we're going to hit them. We're not going to spare them," he said. "You'll hear good news soon."
About 15,000 members of the security forces are fighting between 4,000 and 5,000 militants in Swat, the military says.
The offensive has widespread support among most political parties and members of the public, despite widespread opposition to the government's alliance with the United States in its campaign against militancy.
However, support could evaporate if many civilians are killed or if the people displaced are not properly looked after.
The military says it has inflicted no civilian casualties as soldiers have been attacking militants in the mountains, not in built-up areas where there are civilians. But it has said it will go after the Taliban in Mingora and other towns.
Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said security forces had moved into the town of Matta, where the Taliban leader in the valley, Fazlullah, was believed to be hiding.
Abbas said he had no details of the fighting in Matta. Swat residents said some civilians were still in the town.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said on May 16 that the flood of people who have poured out of Swat was one of the most dramatic displacement crises in the world in recent times.
The United Nations has registered 1.17 million people, though many are believed not to have registered. They are joining about 565,000 displaced by earlier fighting in the northwest.
Malik, while urging people to flee from Swat's main town, said displaced people could return to some other areas in the valley that troops had cleared.