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Pakistani Army: Up to 80 Militants Killed in Northwest

Pakistan says its security forces have killed up to 80 militants in ongoing anti-insurgency operations in the country's northwest.

Pakistani security forces are engaged in a weeklong anti-Taliban operation in the northwestern district of Buner, just 100-kilometers from Islamabad. Security forces said they have killed more than 200 fighters.

Fighting has also picked up in the troubled Swat valley a day after insurgents seized several government buildings and were reported to have planted landmines along key routes. Military officials said helicopters targeting suspected Taliban hideouts killed as many as 50 fighters.

The militant-dominated valley is under an indefinite curfew and fears of a full-scale military operation have forced tens of thousands of families to flee to safer areas. But army officials have refused to confirm a major offensive is planned.

The districts of Swat and Buner are parts of the northwestern Malakand Division, which is covered by a controversial, but increasingly fragile peace deal with local Taliban.

The government, under the agreement, has imposed Islamic law in the region in return for an end to insurgent activities.

But provincial Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain said militants have not honored the deal and are trying set up a parallel government in the area.

The minister said the government has given peaceful means a chance, but it is determined to crush anyone who tries to challenge its authority.

Many in Pakistan and abroad have been critical of the Swat peace deal and predicted it will not last. Criticizing the deal, Washington said the Pakistani government was abdicating authority to the Taliban.

U.S special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke defended Washington's criticism of the Swat deal while speaking to U.S lawmakers in Washington this week.

"When Swat fell and the deal was made, the concern that was expressed was not initially in the United States, it was among the people of Peshawar, Lahore and Islamabad who understandably felt threatened," he said.

In the past two years, Pakistani security forces have conducted two full-scale operations in Swat, but local media, civil society groups and opposition parties remained critical of that policy mainly because of collateral damage it was causing. Critics had been urging the government to give peace talks a chance.

But many in Pakistan now believe that extremist activities by the Taliban appear to have reduced public support for the militants. Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said this will help the military in case a fresh offensive is launched in Swat.

"All this space [reference to the peace deal], which was given at the cost of military's applying maximum constraint and withdrawing back in the camps, the public opinion at the national level went against the militants because they saw the real face of these militants and the intentions of the militants. So the people have now rallied around a point where they feel that it is now time to stop these militants and take care of this militancy," said Abbas.

Provincial authorities said thousands of men, women and children have left the Swat Valley and, in case of a fresh military offensive, they expect as many as 500,000 residents could end up in temporary camps for displaced families.