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Taliban tells civilians to return but denies talk of a cease-fire

THE Taliban has urged civilians to return to the main town in Pakistan's Swat Valley, promising they won't attack security forces battling insurgents there but stopping short of calling the move a cease-fire.

The army has already ruled out halting its operation in the valley, saying such an announcement was a sign that the outnumbered insurgents were "staring defeat in the face."

Pakistan began the month-old offensive against militants in Swat and surrounding areas after they ignored the terms of a peace deal.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan framed the militants' decision to stop attacking troops in Mingora town as due to concern for the safety of civilians and property.

"I would like to appeal to the people of Mingora to get back to their homes and start their routine life as we will not fire even a single shot," Khan said in a phone call from an undisclosed location. Asked if that meant a cease-fire, he added: "No, this is not like that. Our aides will remain there in Mingora, but we will not attack, we will not fire shots."

The army says it has secured several major intersections in Mingora, an urban center that under normal circumstances has at least 375,000 residents. Many of the extremists were fleeing Mingora for Kabal, a town to the west, but security forces are trying to secure that locality as well.

Troops also have secured Malam Jabba - the site of a ski resort that militants wrecked last year - which the army said the Taliban was using as a training center and logistics base.

An army statement issued yesterday afternoon said that in the previous 24 hours, four suspected militants were killed and eight were arrested in the valley, while six security personnel were wounded.

In rejecting the Taliban's pledge to stop fighting, army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said the militants "have started using ploys to escape. They are now remembering the civilians whom they used to behead and decapitate."

He said the operation in the city would go on as planned. Commanders have said they aim to eliminate the militants in the valley and said last Friday any cease-fire was unlikely.

Close to 1.9 million civilians have fled the valley and surrounding districts, but up to 20,000 remain in Mingora.

A resident on the outskirts of the city said 3,000 people were stranded in his neighborhood and were suffering.

"We do not have anything to eat. We do not have water," said Liaqat Ali. "We do not have medicines. We do not have any doctor or any hospitals to go to."


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