Half a million flee Swat valley as Pakistan faces months of fighting

Up to 500,000 terrified residents of Pakistan’s Swat valley have fled or else are desperately trying to leave as the military steps up an operation using fighter jets and helicopter gunships to “eliminate” Taliban fighters.

As the military intensified what may be its most determined operation to date against militant extremists, the UN said 200,000 people had already arrived in safe areas in the past few days while another 300,000 were on the move or were poised to leave.

The escalation of the operation came after Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousaf Gilani, made a public appeal for unity. In a televised address on Thursday evening, Mr Gilani said: “I appeal to the people of Pakistan to support the government and army at this crucial time. We pledge to eliminate the elements who have destroyed the peace and calm of the nation and wanted to take Pakistan hostage at gunpoint.”

The struggle to drive the Taliban from Swat comes amid intense pressure from the US and deepening anxiety in Pakistan about the spread of the militants to areas no more than 60 miles from Islamabad. The government had initially hoped to bring an end to two years of violence in the former tourist haven by signing a controversial peace deal which saw it agree to the establishment of sharia law in the valley and in neighbouring areas. However,the ceasefire appeared to encourage Taliban militias and their fighters slipped into the adjacent area of Buner.

Last night a military spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas, told a Pakistani television channel: “To a rough estimate there are between 4,000 to 5,000 militants present in Swat. We are looking forward to the return of the writ of the state.”

Yet the operation – which the military says had already killed scores of militants – could yet present Pakistan with one of its greatest humanitarian challenges. In Geneva, Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said there was now a “massive displacement in north-west Pakistan”.

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