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Pakistani civilians caught in crossfire

DOCTORS rushed to treat an influx of wounded Pakistani civilians yesterday as thousands of troops backed by warplanes sought to purge Taliban militants from a northwestern valley.

A suspected United States missile strike killed nine people in another militant stronghold near the Afghan border, Pakistani officials said. The victims' identities were not clear.

Pakistan's leaders, encouraged by the United States, launched a full-scale offensive in the Swat Valley this week to halt the spread of Taliban control in districts within 100 kilometers of the capital.

But the fighting has caused hundreds of thousands of terrified residents to flee, adding a humanitarian emergency to the nation's security, economic and political problems.

Children killed

Witness accounts indicated that scores of civilians have already been killed or injured in the clashes in Swat and the neighboring Buner and Lower Dir districts.

Yesterday, medics at the hospital in Swat's main town, Mingora, were at full stretch to deal with dozens of residents caught in the fighting.

Riaz Khan, a 36-year-old school teacher, his wife and two daughters occupied four of the beds, the shrapnel wounds on their arms and legs covered by bandages.

Khan said his other two daughters were killed three days earlier.

"We buried our daughters on Thursday when the army relaxed the curfew," he said. "We reached the hospital only with great difficulty."

Pakistan's army is fighting to wrest Swat and neighboring districts from militants who dominate the adjoining tribal belt along the Afghan frontier, where US officials say al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is likely holed up.

The army says it is reinforcing the 12,000 to 15,000 troops in Swat as they take on 4,000 to 5,000 militants.


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