PESHAWAR - Pakistan nears complete victory in its decisive fight against Taliban militants in Swat Valley as its defense secretary says they hope to crush the Taliban resistance in the region within a couple of days. Meanwhile, there are growing fears of massive revenge attacks.
Swat Valley's main town Mingora is back in government hands, the military announced late Saturday, and security officials said they were now pursuing the top leadership of the hard-line Taliban movement into the nearby mountains.
Secretary of Defense Syed Athar Ali told a security forum in Singapore that three targeted northwest districts were almost clear of Taliban rebels.
"Operations in Swat, Buner and adjoining areas have almost met complete success," he said.
"Only five to ten percent of the job is remaining and hopefully within the next two to three days these pockets of resistance will be cleared."
The army remains locked in battle in some areas, but the fall of Mingora was a critical milestone in an offensive launched after the Taliban thrust to within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of Islamabad in April.
Pakistan's military also reported that 25 militants and seven soldiers were killed in clashes in South Waziristan near the Afghan border, a bolt-hole for Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked militants south of the current army bombardment. "Miscreants attacked a security forces check post last night (Saturday) in Spinkai Raghzai, South Waziristan agency. The attack was repulsed successfully, inflicting heavy casualties on militants," it said in a statement.
Fifteen militants and three soldiers died in the clash in Spinkai Raghzai, while elsewhere in the semi-autonomous tribal area 10 insurgents and four troops including a lieutenant died when rebels attacked a military convoy.
Civilians have started fleeing the area fearing a fresh military onslaught, but the army has denied an imminent assault on Waziristan, where militants branded by Washington as the greatest terror threat to the West are holed up.
The United States, which is firmly backing the current military drive, had warned that the rebels threaten Pakistan's very existence. Officials have said that lower-ranking Taliban leaders had been killed but it was harder to get to the top leaders, who had a network of hardcore militants around them and had slipped into the rugged mountain terrain.
"They will be eliminated wherever we find them," said one military official, who did not wish to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media, adding: "We believe that they are somewhere in the mountains."
Pakistan has slapped a 600,000-dollar price on the head of firebrand Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah for masterminding the nearly two-year uprising in the valley to enforce sharia law. Fazlullah led thousands of supporters in a campaign that has beheaded opponents, burned schools and fought government troops since November 2007.
The government has also offered rewards for 21 rebel chiefs -- wanted dead or alive -- from Swat. The military claims to have killed 1,244 militants since the offensive began, although the numbers are impossible to verify.
As the government ups its campaign to stamp out the militants, fears are growing of a wave of revenge attacks.
The northwestern capital Peshawar and the eastern cultural center of Lahore have both been rocked by deadly explosions in the last five days, killing a total of 39 people and wounding hundreds more.
Fear of massive revenge attacks
A spokesman for Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud -- who has a five-million-dollar bounty on his head posted by the United States -- has claimed Wednesday's suicide bombing on a police building in Lahore.
Hakimullah Mehsud also warned of more "massive attacks" to avenge the Swat military operation and in protest at Islamabad's ties with Washington. Nearly 2.4 million people have fled the current offensive, and the military relaxed a curfew yesterday in most parts of the northwest including Mingora to allow people trapped on the roads to return home or leave the region.
Also yesterday, Taliban militants attacked a school in Hangu town south of Peshawar, killing one administrator and kidnapping three other people, local policeman Shoukat Hussain said. In North Waziristan, meanwhile, a former government doctor and an Afghan national were killed by suspected militants, officials said.