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Pakistani forces kill 55 Taliban as civilians take chance to flee

PAKISTANI forces killed 55 Taliban in the northwestern valley of Swat yesterday, the army said, and lifted a curfew to allow thousands more civilians to flee before soldiers assail the Taliban-held main town.

Pakistan has vowed to eliminate militants from Swat and two neighboring districts under intense United States pressure for action against extremists threatening both nuclear-armed Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

The military claimed yesterday that militants were shaving off their beards and cutting their hair - flowing locks were fashionable among the Swat Taliban - in order to mingle with the refugees pouring out of the valley and escape.

It appealed to civilians to point out militants among them to security forces, and even issued a mobile phone number so people could pass on anonymous tips.

But an e-mailed army statement also said militants had mounted a counterattack, and that three soldiers were killed and 11 wounded in clashes over the previous 24 hours.

The Swat operation is a key test of Pakistan's will and ability to roll back the advance of homegrown Taliban militants, who last month seized a district just 100 kilometers from the capital Islamabad under cover of a since-abandoned peace process.

The army says it is advancing slowly in an attempt to limit civilian casualties. Public opinion appears to support the offensive. But analysts say the mood will quickly turn against the pro-Western government if the fighting drags and civilian hardship mounts.

According to the United Nations, more than 900,000 people have already abandoned the area amid escalating clashes, which the army says has left more than 800 militants and dozens of troops dead.

Some 80,000 refugees have moved into camps set up by the government and the UN, most of them near Mardan.

In the latest exodus, columns of cars, trucks and horse-drawn carts packed with people and laden with bundles of possessions streamed out of Mingora, according to witnesses and television reports.

Some picked their way past burned-out vehicles. Others opted for rough dirt roads through the fields and mountains. More were scurrying south on foot with no more than the clothes on their backs.

"I was waiting for the opportunity to leave Mingora. I got the chance today, and now I am going to Mardan," a city just to the south, said Ismail Khan, 66, while shooing his relatives onto a bus.


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