Pakistan offensive could last months: military

Pakistan's military said Wednesday that big towns could be won back within days but warned it could take another two months to defeat the Taliban in a blistering air and ground offensive.

Pakistan launched the assault to "eliminate" Islamist militants in three districts of the northwest in late April, under heavy US pressure to stem the advance of Taliban fighters to within 100 kilometres 60 miles of Islamabad.

"The big cities and big towns will stand clear within three days' time," military spokesman Brigadier General Athar Abbas told AFP on a hill overlooking Mingora, the main town in the Swat valley that the army claims to control.

Describing the Taliban as an elusive enemy that shied away from pitched battles during a six-week offensive in the northwest, Abbas said it "may be another two months when we can say the complete area is fully secured".

Pakistan claims that more than 1,300 militants and around 86 soldiers have died in the operations, which UN officials say have also displaced up to 2.5 million civilians, now sheltering in government-run camps or with relatives.

The military announced further successes Wednesday, saying government forces had secured Charbagh, located 20 kilometres 12 miles north of Mingora and described as one of the most important Taliban strongholds in Swat.

Security forces also "successfully secured Pir Baba and Bhai Kalay" in the neighbouring district of Buner, where there has been heavy fighting for weeks.

Few details given out by the military can be independently confirmed because the area of operations are largely closed to journalists and aid workers.

An AFP reporter saw heavy damage in downtown Mingora at Green Chowk, once dubbed "bloody chowk" because of the bodies -- headless, hanged and shot -- that used to be dumped in the roundabout by Taliban during an uprising to enforce sharia law.

Shops were reduced to rubble, sides of buildings collapsed and debris littered the ground. Elsewhere, there were broken windows around the electricity and water plant, but otherwise little visible damage in the city.

The shops still standing were shuttered and not a soul was on the streets with Mingora under curfew Wednesday, although Abbas estimated that 30,000 people were still living in the city out of a population of 300,000 -- the vast majority of whom fled.

Major General Ijaz Awan, commander of the Mingora campaign, said that the displaced might be able to return within two weeks but that soldiers would need to patrol for at least a year to protect the city from returning Taliban.

"Militarily they can bring them back tomorrow," he said referring to those who fled Mingora to government-run camps or relatives' homes further south.

Even if the guns have fallen silent in the city, which the military said Saturday returned to government control, residents who remain have told AFP there is no electricity, gas or running water.

"By June 17, these services will be put right. Then the gradual, systematic return of IDPs internally displaced persons will begin," Awan told reporters.

"A return of army to the barracks before one year is not possible," he said.

Pakistan has vowed to hunt down the commanders of the Taliban uprising in Swat, but commanders are not totally certain of their whereabouts.

"It is the demand of the people of Malakand. It is not the demand of the militants," said the administration chief for the region, Fazal Karim Khattak.

A Siberian tiger cub is seen with its mother at a zoo in China. REUTERS/China Daily