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Thousands Flee As Pakistani Jets Hit Swat

Local residents flee Mingora, in the Swat Valley, on May 5.
MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Thousands of people are taking advantage of a break in a curfew in Pakistan's Swat valley to get out of the region as government aircraft attacked Taliban positions.

The government's handling of Swat has become a test of its resolve to fight a growing Taliban militant insurgency. President Asif Ali Zardari assured U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on May 6 of Islamabad's commitment to defeating Al-Qaeda and its allies.

A February peace pact aimed at ending Taliban violence in Swat has collapsed and on May 6 the military launched assaults in the outskirts of the region's main town of Mingora.

"We can't stay here when bombs are falling all around," said resident Mohammad Hayat Khan as he loaded his family of 14 onto a pick-up truck. He said there had been shelling near his home.

Many other people were heading out of Mingora on foot, loaded up with whatever they could carry.

About 40,000 people have been displaced from Swat and nearby areas since fighting flared last month, provincial authorities said, adding that up to 800,000 people could flee from the valley, which has a population of about 1.6 million.

Several hundred thousand had already fled fighting in different parts of the northwest since August.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed his deep concern about the safety of tens of thousands of displaced while the International Committee of the Red Cross said a humanitarian crisis was intensifying.

Authorities agreed in February to a Taliban demand for the introduction of Islamic sharia law in the former tourist valley but the militants refused to disarm, and pushed out of Swat into neighboring districts.

The aggression raised alarm in the United States and led to accusations the government was capitulating to the militants.

Security forces launched an offensive on April 26 to expel militants from two of Swat's neighboring districts, Dir and Buner, and security has deteriorated sharply in Swat since then.


Zardari met Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Washington on May 6. Obama later said both men "fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat" posed by Al-Qaeda and their allies.

"The road ahead will be difficult," Obama said, with Karzai and Zardari at his side at the White House. "But let me be clear -- the United States has made a lasting commitment to defeat Al-Qaeda but also to support the democratically elected sovereign governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Pakistani security forces said at least 64 militants were killed in Swat and the nearby Buner district in fighting on May 6. Two soldiers were also killed.

A Taliban spokesman said more than 30 civilians had been killed in Swat.

There was no independent confirmation of either side's tolls.

Security forces used jets and helicopters to attack militant strongholds in at least four parts of the Swat valley on May 6, residents and government officials said.

There was no word on casualties but a son of radical cleric Sufi Mohammad, who brokered the Swat peace deal, was killed when an artillery shell hit his house in the neighboring Dir district, a spokesman for the cleric said.

It was not clear who fired the shell, but it is the military that generally uses artillery. The militants tend to fire rockets and smaller weapons.

People began streaming out of Mingora when authorities temporarily lifted a curfew. Swat's top administrator, Khushal Khan, said people were not being advised to leave but authorities were helping those who wanted to go.