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Pakistan's restive Swat Valley is set to become a war zone – again. The Taliban have been busy mining the main streets of the valley's main city, Mingora, taking over government buildings, and seizing police stations. Civilians, meanwhile, can't get out. The Taliban have blocked the roads with trees. Black-turbaned fighters are now poised with their fingers on the trigger, waiting for the Army to come back in.
That could happen any day. So far the Army has preferred to bomb the militants from above, using helicopters and artillery. But ground troops may become necessary as the Taliban dig in. And not just in Swat – after months of inaction, the Pakistani military has begun pounding Taliban enclaves in a 50-mile arc along the Northwest Frontier Province.
This is exactly the sort of violence that the government's peace deal with the Swat Taliban, signed in February, was supposed to avoid. Instead, it only emboldened the Taliban to seize larger swaths of land closer to Islamabad, the capital. As fighting threatens to ignite the region, Pakistan's president, now in Washington, is scrambling to convince the Obama administration that Pakistan can prevail.
As fighting heats up in districts of Swat, Dir, and Buner, the Pakistani government is expecting a staggering new wave of refugees, according to Dawn, one of Pakistan's leading English-language newspapers.
The government in North West Frontier Province has said up to half a million could flee the Taliban flashpoint district of Swat and local officials said Wednesday that more than 40,000 left the main town of Mingora in 24 hours....
'We can no longer reach the areas most affected by the fighting on account of the volatile situation,' Benno Kochner, who runs ICRC operations in NWFP from the provincial capital Peshawar, said in the statement.
At least 69 Taliban were killed as the army pounded Taliban positions in Mingora and Buner and seized control of an emerald mine in Swat on Wednesday, in the first 'planned operation' since the collapse of a peace deal between the Taliban and the NWFP government, military sources said.
According to [the military], four troops were killed and six injured in the fighting. Five security officials were killed and four others injured in a remote-controlled bomb blast near Pull Chowki in Chakkadra area of Malakand, a private TV channel reported.
The Daily Times adds that, as the military touts its gains over the Taliban, the Taliban claim to be firmly in control of Swat.
The Taliban are in control of "90 percent" of the Swat valley, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Muslim Khan told Al Jazeera on Wednesday. Blaming the breakdown of the Swat peace deal on the Pakistani military, Khan said the peace accord with the government in the Swat valley was over. Khan alleged the security forces had killed civilians in the area. "How can we follow the agreement with them?" Khan said.
Swat is seen as an especially significant battleground. Rather than a remote badlands along the Afghan border, it is only 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and is a relatively wealthy former tourist resort famed for its striking mountain views.
This latest outbreak comes as a serious challenge for Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, who is in Washington, along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, to convince skeptical American officials that Pakistan has the will and capacity to beat the Taliban. The Los Angeles Times reports:
"In a morning meeting at the State Department between Clinton and other senior officials ... Zardari promised: "We are up to the challenge. . .My democracy will deliver."
"American officials want Mr. Zardari and the Pakistani Army to move troops, including the country's 11th Infantry Division, from Lahore and the eastern part of the country, where the army has been preoccupied with India, toward the western border, where the government is battling Taliban insurgents.
Pakistani officials told their American counterparts this week that they were moving large numbers of troops toward the border with Afghanistan, which American officials described as encouraging.
But it remains a question whether these troop movements are real or token, and some of Mr. Obama's senior aides caution that Pakistan's military is ill suited to carry out the kind of counterinsurgency operations needed to end the Taliban fighters' control of Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province, and to keep them from infiltrating again or shifting to another region."