Pakistan takes control of 'bloody intersection'

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Pakistani troops battling the Taliban made major advances in the Swat Valley's main town yesterday, taking several key points including a spot nicknamed "bloody intersection" because militants routinely dumped the mutilated bodies of their victims there.

A military statement yesterday said forces moving from street to street in Mingora secured eight crossings while encountering at least 12 roadside bombs. Meanwhile, helicopter gunships pounded Taliban hideouts across the north-west, killing at least 18.

Five suspected militants were killed in various parts of Mingora while 14 others were arrested, the army said. Victory in the town, a key commercial hub, is considered critical to the success of the effort to drive the Taliban out.

The army has said 10,000 to 20,000 residents are still stranded in the town, which normally has a population of at least 375,000. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Taliban fighters are said to be there. The military says about 1,100 suspected insurgents have died so far in the month-long offensive. But it has not given any tally of civilian deaths, and refugees have reported dozens of ordinary Pakistanis killed in the fight.

One civilian said on Saturday night that gunshots were ringing through the air, first continuously, then at intervals. He said he had tried to flee the city twice but failed due to the fighting and lack of transportation. "I will try to leave again whenever I get another chance," said Fazal Wadood, a local leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party. "It is like inviting death to stay here anymore."