Pak troops capture two major towns in Swat

Security forces took control of Charbagh, a key base of the Taliban, and also secured the area around the shrine of Pir Baba in nearby Buner district as three militants and a soldier were killed in fighting over the past 24 hours, the military said in a statement.

Brig Fayaz, an army commander leading operations in Buner, told visiting reporters that the revered shrine of Pir Baba was secured without a single shot being fired. As he took the journalists around the area, artillery targeted militant hideouts on nearby mountains.

Troops consolidated their positions in Charbagh, on which the army had last week launched an assault after securing Mingora, the main city in Swat district.

Soldiers recovered a huge cache of explosives and improvised explosive devices during a search of a madrassa or seminary in the area.

"The Army will clear out big cities and towns within two-three days," Chief Military Spokesman Maj. Gen. Akthar Abbas said. But, he said Taliban were proving elusive as they melted into the forest avoiding pitched battles.

"So it may be another another two to three months till the whole of Swat, Dir and Buner are cleared of Taliban," the General said.

Meanwhile, officials said more than 40 students from an Army-run school are still being held captive by Taliban in North Waziristan contradicting the military's claim that all the abducted cadets had been freed.

At least 35 students are still missing, Habibullah Khan, Additional Chief Secretary of Federally Administered Tribal Areas has said, while TV channels quoted school teachers as putting the figure of those still unaccounted for upto 50.

A convoy of buses ferrying the students and teachers of the Razmak Cadet College outside the restive territory was ambushed by heavily-armed Taliban militants yesterday.

Another top military commander, who is leading the forces in the Swat offensive, said the army would have to camp in the area for at least a year to prevent Taliban from reestablishing control.

Maj. Gen. Ijaz Awan said his forces were now poised to recapture Kabal town which is on the outskirts of Mingora. He said military believes that top Taliban commanders are holed-up in the area.

"We have sealed all routes to the town and hopefully this will be a decisive battle," he said.

The General said that civilians displaced due to the army campaign might be able to return to all the towns retaken by the security forces within two weeks.

According to UN estimates up to 2.5 million people have been uprooted from their homes by the fighting .

"Even if the guns have fallen silent there is still no electricity, water or gas. It would take two to three weeks to restore these facilities," Gen Awan said.

In operations in Shangla district, three militants and a soldier were killed in an exchange of fire that erupted when the Taliban raided a check post north of Matta town. Two soldiers were also injured in the firing, the military said.

Security forces cleared Dakorak area near Gulibagh and established two check posts in Sattal area of Shangla. They also consolidated their positions at Kalam in the same district.

In Dir district, security forces launched an operation as part of efforts to consolidate their positions and secured the area from Gulabad to Asband.

A 'lashkar' or tribal militia killed four militants at Maidan in Dir district. The militia has so far killed seven Taliban fighters in the area, media reports said.

Senior ministers of the North West Frontier Province government visited the shrine of Pir Baba to offer prayers and interacted with local residents. They also toured the local market, where most of the shops were closed.

A community police force will be set up in the area to maintain law and order though the army might have to remain in Swat for a year, Gen Awan said. He claimed over 570 militants were killed and another 150 injured in fighting in Mingora.

The Pakistan Army claims it has killed over 1,200 militants in the anti-Taliban operations in Buner, Dir and Swat districts. Nearly 100 soldiers have also died in the fighting.

These figures cannot be independently confirmed as journalists are barred from reporting from the conflict zone.

Army helicopters today dropped food packets for people stranded in Kalam and nearby areas due to the fighting. Five trucks with 25 tonnes of rations were sent to people stranded in Khwazakhela, another Taliban stronghold in Swat.

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