Public support in Pakistan still behind crackdown on Taliban

A boy stands outside a tent Sunday at a refugee camp in Sangjani, outside Islamabad. Hundreds of thousands have fled the fighting between the army and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley in Pakistan's northwest. (Greg Baker ~ Associated Press)

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistani security forces fought Taliban militants on the outskirts of the main city in the northwest's Swat Valley and entered two other Taliban-held towns there, the army said Sunday.

A top government official said the offensive near Afghanistan had already killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters, while a group of pro-government religious leaders endorsed the operation but condemned U.S. missile strikes in the northwest.

Washington has pressed Islamabad to crack down on al-Qaida and Taliban strongholds along the Afghan frontier, saying the militants threaten not only U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan but also nuclear-armed Pakistan's future. But many in Pakistan believe the militancy here has metastasized because of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.

Recent Taliban forays into a district 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, seem to have swayed many Pakistanis to support the most recent military operation, but that could change if the toll on the hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced mounts, and if more U.S. missiles strikes stoke greater popular discontent.

In giving the 1,000-plus death toll Sunday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the operation in Swat and surrounding areas would "continue till the last Taliban are flushed out." It was not possible to independently verify the figure. The territories bombarded over the past three weeks are now too dangerous for journalists to freely visit.

In a statement Sunday afternoon, the army said 25 militants and a soldier died in the previous 24 hours.

Security forces were facing off with militants in "intense fire engagements" on the outskirts of Swat's main town, Mingora, where many of the estimated 4,000 Taliban fighters in the valley are believed to be holed up, the statement said.

"The operation is going in the right direction as we had planned," Malik said in a televised news conference from Mardan, where he went to relief camps to see some of the new refugees. "I cannot give a time but we will try [to complete the operation] at the earliest."

The most recent major offensive by Pakistan's army, in the Bajur tribal region, drew praise from U.S. officials for dismantling a virtual Taliban ministate but was criticized for the large amount of destruction it caused. The number of civilians killed in Bajur is unknown.

At a convention in Islamabad, hundreds of religious scholars and leaders -- many of them Barelvis, a Sufi-influenced strain of Sunni Islam -- denounced suicide attacks and other Taliban tactics in urging the government to continue the operation until peace is restored.

The attendees also blasted the U.S. missile strikes, saying Pakistan should take up the matter at the United Nations.

"Internally, terrorists were attempting to weaken Pakistan by spreading terrorism and killing people and on the other hand drone attacks are on ... This is a conspiracy against Pakistan and we will foil it," said Sahibzada Fazl Karim, one of the speakers.

Most Pakistanis are relatively moderate Muslims, and many subscribe to Sufi-influenced traditions. However, hard-line versions of Islam have a significant following here, though the Taliban's approach is unusually extreme.

U.S. officials say the missile strikes are a critical tool in killing top militants, but Pakistan has protested them, though many analysts believe the two countries have a secret deal allowing the attacks.

The Taliban's ability to overrun Swat, once a premier Pakistani tourist destinations, had proved particularly embarrassing to the Pakistani military and the weak civilian government.

Many of the main militant safe havens, however, are in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas, with South Waziristan serving as the primary base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

Britain's Sunday Times reported that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said military action would follow in the tribal belt.

"We're going to go into Waziristan, all these regions, with army operations," the newspaper quoted Zardari as saying in an interview. "Swat is just the start. It's a larger war to fight."

Zardari's spokesmen could not immediately be reached Sunday. Malik did not respond directly when asked about a potential extension of the military action. "Wherever the government requires an operation, we will, God willing, do that," he said.

The ongoing operation has involved fighting in the Lower Dir and Buner districts that dates back to last month, but it began in full force in Swat in early May.

Of the nearly 1 million civilians who have fled the affected areas, about 100,000 are now staying in sweltering relief camps. The military has warned that some militants are trying to flee as well, some after shaving off their beards to blend in with refugees.

The military does not explain how it differentiates civilian from militant killings, and it has not released a civilian death toll for the Swat operation, but witnesses have reported many innocent people have been wounded or killed.

In Pakistan's southern city of Karachi, meanwhile, police said a tip off led them to arrest four alleged militants of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned outfit linked to both the Taliban and al-Qaida. The men are suspected of planning attacks on high-value targets in Karachi, senior police officer Chaudhry Mohammad Aslam said.

Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.