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Civilians flee battle zones in Pakistan

PAKISTANI jets screamed over a Taliban-controlled town yesterday and bombed suspected militant positions as hundreds of thousands fled in terror and other trapped residents appealed for a pause in the fighting so they could escape.

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said that 140 militants had been killed in the last 24 hours, adding to around 150 already reported slain. He did give figures for civilian deaths, but witness say noncombatants have been killed.

The United Nations said half a million people have either left or are trying to flee the bombings in the northwestern Swat Valley area that followed strong United States pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan to fight back against militants advancing toward the capital as a peace deal crumbled.

Pakistan has launched at least a dozen operations in the border region in recent years, but most ended inconclusively and after massive destruction and significant civilian deaths. It remains a haven for al-Qaida and Taliban militants, foreign governments say.

To end one of those protracted offensives, the government signed a peace accord in Swat that provided for Islamic law in the region. But that deal began unraveling last month when Swat Taliban fighters moved into Buner, a district just 100 kilometers from Islamabad.

Pakistan's prime minister appealed for international assistance late on Thursday for the growing refugee crisis and vowed to defeat the militants in the latest operation.

"I appeal to the people of Pakistan to support the government and army at this crucial time," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a television address. "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 military hailed signs of the public's mood shifting against the Taliban after the militants used the peace deal to regroup and advance.

"The public have seen their real face," Abbas said. "They realize their agenda goes much beyond Shariah (Islamic) courts."

Still, the government faces a stiff task to keep a skeptical nation behind its security forces.

The mayor of Mardan, the main district to the south of the fighting, said an estimated 250,000 people had fled in recent days and that more were on the move. Of those, 4,500 were staying in camps, while the rest were with relatives or rented accommodation, he said.

Pakistani officials have said up to 500,000 are expected to leave. The exodus from Swat adds to the more than 500,000 already displaced by fighting elsewhere in the volatile border region with Afghanistan.

A UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, Ron Redmond, said up to 200,000 people have arrived in safe areas in the past few days and another 300,000 are on the move or are about to flee.


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