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More flee war-torn Pakistani valley

THOUSANDS of fearful civilians, many on foot or donkey-pulled carts, streamed out of a conflict-ridden Pakistani valley yesterday as authorities briefly lifted a curfew.

The army said it had killed scores of militants in the latest fighting.

Pakistan has urged residents of the Swat Valley to leave over the past week, while its warplanes have pounded the Taliban-held valley and surrounding areas in a United States-backed operation the prime minister has called a "war of the country's survival."

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have already fled the valley, seeking refuge with relatives or flooding relief camps. Many of those camps were already filled with Pakistanis displaced from previous army operations, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in a nuclear-armed nation that also faces economic woes.

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said 400 to 500 militants had been killed since the operation's launch last week.

Much of the latest fighting occurred along the periphery of Swat and Shangla, a neighboring district, he said, and at least 140 bodies of alleged militants were discovered at a militant training camp in that area.

Reports that militants from Swat had filtered into Shangla came out well before the latest operation, but it also was possible that more insurgents were headed to that district to escape the bombardments in the valley.

In Swat, the main town of Mingora was relatively calm, though an army statement said 50 to 60 militants died yesterday in various parts of the valley, a one-time tourist haven. Two soldiers also died in the latest fighting, including one who succumbed to injuries suffered last Friday, the army said. The death tolls could not be confirmed independently.

Once the curfew was lifted early yesterday, more residents in Swat towns tried to get out any way they could, on motorbikes, animal-pulled carts, rickshaws or simply on foot. A ban on civilian vehicles entering the valley complicated the exodus for those without cars.

"We are going out only with our clothes and a few things to eat on the long journey," said Rehmat Alam, a 40-year-old medical technician walking out of Mingora with 18 other relatives. "We just got out relying on God because there is no one else to help us."

Some cursed the situation and condemned the Taliban, while others blamed Pakistani leaders for engaging in the offensive to please the US. "Show our picture to your master America and get money from him," some taunted.

Taliban fighters were visible in Mingora. Army helicopters briefly shelled two neighborhoods in the city, but overall the fighting was significantly less than in previous days.

The curfew was reimposed in the mid-afternoon, confirmed Mohammad Nadeem, a military spokesman.

By giving residents a chance to escape, the army may be signaling it is preparing an escalation in its offensive against the militants who began a violent campaign to take over Swat some two years ago.


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