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Up to 700 militants killed in Pakistan offensive

Pakistani planes bombed suspected militant positions in a stronghold close to the capital today, pressing ahead with a fierce offensive the government claimed had killed 700 insurgents and had the Taliban on the run.

The United Nations said 360,600 refugees had fled Swat and neighboring Dir and Buner districts since operations began last week. That figure is on top of some 500,000 people registered as displaced due to past offensives — a major humanitarian challenge for the weak government that could test public support for the offensive.

In one camp in the town of Mardan, just south of the battle zone, hundreds of displaced people waited for hours to register with the UN, something they must do before getting tents, food and access to medical facilities.

"In this camp, I am not seeing anything that will give us much relief," said a new arrival, Iftikiar Khan, fearing the facilities there were insufficient. Like most of those fleeing, Khan said he ultimately hoped to stay with relatives.

Islamabad's tough military response has earned praise from the US, which wants al-Qaida and Taliban militants rooted out from havens where they can plan attacks on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said 700 militants had been killed there in the last four days.

"The operation will continue until the last Talib," Malik said in the capital, Islamabad. "We haven't given them a chance. They are on the run. They were not expecting such an offensive."

That figure — which exceeds that given by the military on Sunday by at least 200 — and his claims of success could not be independently verified. The military is restricting access to the battlefields and many local journalists have also left. The government has not given figures for civilian casualties, but accounts from refugees suggest they are significant.

Jawad Khan, a university student who lives in the Kabal area of Swat, said jets bombed the nearby Dhada Hara village Monday morning.

"I saw smoke and dust rising from the village," Khan said, adding he didn't know about casualties because of curfew restrictions, which have been enforced again.

A police official said jets bombed the Matta area of Swat on Monday as well.

The official said he was confined to his station but could see a decapitated body lying outside along a road where a clash between military forces and the Taliban on Sunday left six militants dead. He requested anonymity because of security reasons.

He also said that information he had received indicated the militants retained control of Swat's main town, Mingora.

The military launched the offensive after the insurgents in Swat used a peace deal to impose their reign in other neighboring areas, including a stretch just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.

Swat lies near the Afghan border as well as the wild Pakistani tribal areas, where al-Qaida and the Taliban have strongholds and where U.S. officials believe al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden may be hiding. The army says 12,000 to 15,000 troops in Swat face 4,000 to 5,000 militants, including small numbers of foreigners and hardened fighters from the South Waziristan tribal region.

Many in the northwest have little faith in the government's ability to help them, a challenge to Pakistan's leaders because disillusioned refugees could prove fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban.

Malik said the government was providing sufficient funds to help the displaced Pakistanis, and brushed aside fears that militants would try to infiltrate relief camps.

"This fear is baseless that they are melting down among the displaced people because we are screening the displaced people," he said. "We are registering them with documents, checking each and every individual."

Elsewhere in Pakistan's northwest Monday, a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle at a checkpoint, killing six civilians and two members of the Frontier Constabulary security force, police said. The bombing occurred between the main northwest city of Peshawar and the town of Darra Adam Khel, police official Arif Khan said.