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Pakistan Army Steps Up Swat Offensive

Pakistan's army says its forces have killed more than 140 Taliban militants during the last 24 hours in Swat valley. Several troops have also been reported killed. Thousands of people continue to flee the clashes, joining hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis already displaced by fighting in the violent northwest.

Nearly two weeks after Pakistani security forces began attacking Taliban positions in the northwest Malakand region, the army says troops are now focusing on the estimated 4,000 core fighters entrenched in the militant stronghold Swat valley.

Operations target militant training camps

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas says recent operations have targeted militant training camps and ammunition dumps, killing more than 100 Taliban fighters, including some top commanders.

"On the directive of the government, the army is now in full scale operation to eliminate, militants, miscreants and anti-state elements from Swat," Abbas said. "They are on the run and trying to block the exodus of civilians from the area."

Aid workers concerned about Swat residents

Aid workers have expressed concern that Swat residents and other civilians fleeing ongoing operations in nearby Buner and Dir districts have been unable to escape the heavy fighting.

Pakistan's military says about 64,000 people have registered at more than 10 formal camps and hospitals set up for the fleeing civilians. But the United Nations refugee agency said Friday that figure misses the tens of thousands of people who stay with friends and relatives. U.N. officials estimated up to 200,000 people may have already fled the fighting and perhaps 300,000 more could leave in the coming days. They will join an estimated half million people who fled their homes in the past year and still have not returned.

U.N. workers say they are looking for new sites to build camps for the many more expected arrivals.

PM calls on nation to unite against Taliban

During a late-night televised speech Thursday, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani called on the nation to unite against the Taliban, pledging that the military will not quit until the Swat militants are eliminated from the region. The announcement came as President Asif Zardari met with top U.S. officials in Washington to discuss plans for billions of dollars in aid aimed at countering the Taliban.

Two previous military offensives in the last two years against the Swat Taliban failed to push them from the valley, and after each time the militants returned even stronger. General Abbas says that will not happen again.

"For sure the military will not only clear and secure the area, but ensure unless and until the area is taken over completely by the civil administration, and the writ of the government is restored and peace and normalcy return to the area, the military will remain in the area," he said.

The army says up to 15,000 troops in Swat are moving slowly to minimize the collateral damage that helped doom previous operations. But while the military releases daily updates for soldier and Taliban casualties, it has not released such figures for civilians. General Abbas also says the military has forces deployed throughout the northwest in case there is a backlash against the offensive.