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Thousands flee battle in Taliban stronghold

BLACK-TURBANED militants roamed city streets and seized buildings in a northwestern Pakistan valley yesterday as thousands of people fled fighting between the Taliban and government troops.

The Taliban declared the end of their peace deal with the government.

Buses carrying the residents of Mingora, the region's main town, were crammed inside and out. Refugees clambered on to the roofs after seats and floors filled up.

Children and adults alike carried their belongings on their heads and backs - all fleeing fighting they fear is about to consume the region.

Pakistan's leader was preparing for talks in Washington with United States President Barack Obama on how to sharpen his country's fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The deteriorating Swat Valley truce with the Taliban, which American officials opposed from the start, is expected to play a prominent role in the discussions.

Khushal Khan, the top administrator in Swat, said Taliban militants were roaming the area and laying mines. A witness said black-turbaned militants were deployed on most streets and on high buildings, and security forces were barricaded in their bases. Another reported heavy gunfire for much of the day.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the militants were in control of "90 percent" of the valley and said they were responding to army violations of the peace deal. He accused the government of caving to pressure from the United States.

Pakistan agreed to a truce in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts in February after two years of fighting with militants in the former tourist resort.

It formally introduced Islamic law last month in the hope insurgents would lay down their arms.

Last week, the insurgents moved from the valley into Buner, just 100 kilometers from the capital, triggering alarm at home and abroad.

The army responded with an offensive it says killed more than 100 militants.


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