Taliban 'staring defeat in the face' claims Pakistani army

The Pakistani army’s battle to wrest control of the Swat valley’s main town from the Taliban appeared on the point of a breakthrough yesterday after the militants announced that they would stop firing and encouraged residents to return home.

Observers said that the move could be a ruse designed to gain breathing space from the government forces’ attack, and it stopped short of a formal ceasefire. But the Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan’s vow to not fire "even a single bullet" comes after a series of setbacks for the militants in street-to-street battles over the past week.

"Our aides will remain there in Mingora, but we will not attack, we will not fire shots," said Mr Khan, one of two senior Taliban commanders believed to be holed up in Mingora along with an estimated 1,000 hardcore fighters. While a slew of mid-level commanders have been killed, the Taliban leadership remains at large.

The army brusquely dismissed suggestions that it halt its operation in response, saying the Taliban were "staring defeat in the face". Major-General Athar Abbas said Mr Khan’s remarks were part of a broader militant “ploy” to escape. "They are now remembering the civilians whom they used to behead and decapitate," he said.

The army has claimed a flurry of successes in Mingora and other parts of the Swat valley. Mingora’s Green Square is among the territory cleared. It is an area that came to be known as "the bloody square", because the Taliban would leave headless corpses of policemen, soldiers and civilians there.

Militants are said to be fleeing Mingora and heading back toward their stronghold of Kabal, which is across the Swat river. The army pushed into Kabal from a base in the town of Kanju yesterday, but conceded they were facing "stiff resistance".

Elsewhere, the army said it had cleared the former ski-resort of Malam Jabba, where the Taliban had set up a logistics and training base after torching the ski-lift last year.

Meanwhile, the number of people displaced by the fighting in Pakistan’s north-west rose to an alarming 2.3 million people, the Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said.