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Pakistan's defense minister on Sunday predicted victory to be just days away in the government's month-long military offensive in the Swat Valley, a Taliban stronghold. Once that is accomplished, government officials said the military is likely to launch a second offensive in Waziristan, where Pakistani forces killed as many as 40 militants on Sunday.
Militant violence has been on the rise in Pakistan's tribal areas, raising concerns about the stability of a nuclear-armed nation that the US sees as vital to its war on terror. The region, located along Afghanistan's border, is home base for the Taliban's fight against Pakistan, as well as Afghan and US forces next door. South Waziristan alone is believed to host up to seven training camps for would-be suicide bombers, according to a detailed BBC map and accompanying briefing page.
On Sunday, Reuters reported that Taliban fighters attacked a paramilitary camp used by pro-government forces in the South Waziristan town of Jandola late on Saturday. Estimates of the number of casualties vary widely, and no figure has been independently confirmed.
"Militants came in force and attacked a paramilitary camp and fighting lasted for eight hours. At least 40 militants were killed while four soldiers died," said an intelligence official in the region who declined to be identified.
A military spokesman said the militants had been pushed back after a heavy exchange of fire. Up to 15 militants and three soldiers were killed, he said.
Government officials have said that a second offensive in Waziristan is likely after the Taliban has been defeated in Swat, the Reuters article added. That day may be fast approaching. The battle in South Waziristan comes one day after government forces retook Mingora, the largest town in the Swat Valley, a former resort area that has been taken over by the Taliban.
The town is far from the vacation spot it once was, reports the Associated Press. One day after the Taliban fled, residents emerged from hiding to find damaged buildings, empty markets, and two unburied bodies – apparently of insurgents – in a cemetery.
"We have been starving for many days. We have been cooking tree leaves to keep ourselves alive. Thank God it is over," a man called Afzal Khan told the AP. "We need food, we need help. We want peace."
As many as 300,000 people lived in the town before it was occupied by Taliban last month, reports Reuters. Since the beginning of the government offensive in late April, more than 3 million people in the region are believed to have fled their homes.
"Operations in Swat, Buner and adjoining areas have almost met complete success," the secretary of defence said.
"Only five to ten percent job is remaining and hopefully within the next two to three days these pockets of resistance will be cleared."
The most recent Swat offensive is Pakistan's third attempt to push the Taliban from the region, reports the New York Times, and is by far its most successful. The key ingredient appears to be the backing of the public, which has so far been supportive of the Swat offensive, according to military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
Pakistan's military has conducted two previous operations in Swat, but each involved fewer ground troops than this offensive, and they were criticized as causing too much harm to civilians without discernible gains against the Taliban.
Now, General Abbas said, the Pakistani public seems to be firmly behind the expanded offensive. "The military feels it's in a much better position to finish the job because it has public support," he said.
Soldiers' deaths have been commemorated in emotional public ceremonies, and news channels have been praising troops with segments with headlines like "All the Right Moves."
But as government forces close in on the Taliban, the militants have been striking back, often far from the combat zone.
Pakistani daily Dawn reported Sunday that 80 civilians have been killed, and scores more injured, in 14 bombings that have struck Pakistani cities since the start of the government assault at the end of April.
Attackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, analysts say, executing commando-style assaults armed with suicide vests, vehicle bombs, guns, grenades and rockets.
Over the last two weeks in Peshawar, bombs have exploded outside a cinema, near crowded electronics shops, at a police checkpoint and even alongside a bus full of children with special needs.
And in Lahore, Pakistan's entertainment capital, a bomb, gun and grenade assault killed 24 people and partially damaged the provincial headquarters of the country's premier spy agency on Wednesday.
It was the third spectacular assault in and around the eastern city — hundreds of miles from the offensive in the northwest — in as many months.
General Abbas, the military spokesman, said 1,217 militants have been killed since fighting began, reports Reuters. An estimated 81 soldiers have been killed, and 250 have been wounded.
Newspaper columnist Shafqat Mehmood tells Dawn he sees the bombings in Lahore and Peshawar as a sign of the Taliban's growing desperation in the face of such steep losses.
'Militants are under pressure and will employ any tactic to cause maximum damage. Urban terrorism is one of those tactics,' said Mehmood.