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Pakistanis Urged Back To Areas Cleared Of Taliban

DAGGAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistanis who fled fighting between the army and the Taliban in the northwestern district of Buner can go home, a government official said on June 19, as troops neared the end of an offensive in nearby Swat.

Nearly 2 million people have fled fighting in northwest Pakistan which intensified in late April when the army moved to push the Taliban out of Buner district, 100 kilometers from Islamabad, before launching an offensive in Swat on May 8.

The Taliban thrust into Buner in early April raised fears for the future of Pakistan, a vital ally for the United States as it strives to defeat Al-Qaeda and stabilize neighbouring Afghanistan, and for the safety of its nuclear arsenal.

Most of Pakistan's political parties and members of the public support the offensive but the government risks seeing that backing disappear if the displaced languish in misery.

The top government administrator in Buner, Yahya Akhundzada, said the return of people to secure areas would build confidence, which would itself contribute to the defeat of the Taliban.

"My message for displaced people is that at least they should come back to cleared areas of Buner," Akhundzada told reporters on a government-organized trip to Daggar, the main town in Buner.

"When they come back...people will be more confident and that's how we can eliminate the militants," he said.

More than half of Buner's 700,000 population fled and Akhundzada said about 6,000 of them had returned.

Several families were seen returning to the district, where life is getting back to normal with several shops open on the road to the town and vendors are selling fruit and vegetables from carts. The town's hospital has also reopened.

'We Chase Them'

The army has made progress in Swat, pushing the militants out of the main towns. An end to the offensive appears in sight, although soldiers are still encountering pockets of resistance.

But, as people trickle back to their homes, an exodus of civilians from another area looms with the military planning an offensive against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in his stronghold in South Waziristan on the Afghan border.

Thousands of people have left the region, residents say, as the army launches occasional air strikes on Mehsud's positions.

Aircraft bombed militants in South Waziristan again on June 19, residents said, but all was quiet in Buner.

"The town is fully secured and there is no resistance at all. Wherever we see militants, in town or in the mountains, we chase and eliminate them," the main commander in the area, Colonel Naseer Janjua, told Reuters.

The army says it killed nearly 500 militants out of an estimated 1,000 in Buner, with the rest on the run. Independent casualty estimates are not available.

Militants put up tough resistance, especially in their stronghold of Sultanwas, a village 4 kilometers north of Buner, where troops later recovered a huge arms cache.

Most of the houses in the village were completely destroyed or badly damaged.

A burnt-out, Chinese-made T-69 tank, which troops used in the fighting, was abandoned by a road, testament, Janjua said, to how well-trained and well-equipped the militants were.