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Pakistan Claims Advances in Swat Offensive

Pakistan says its security forces have made further advances in the militant-dominated Swat valley and neighboring districts, killing 55 Taliban militants. The fighting, which began late last month, has now forced nearly one million people to flee to safer areas.

Thousands of Pakistani security forces are engaged in a major anti-insurgency operation in Swat and two neighboring districts of the northwestern Malakand Division.

Militants giving selves makeovers to escape

A military statement issued Friday said that the operation is progressing well and that Taliban militants were shaving off their beards and cutting their hair in order to mingle with the refugees to escape the Swat valley. The spokesman appealed to civilians moving out of the region to point out any militants to security forces.

The statement says authorities temporarily lifted a curfew in the valley Friday to enable thousands of people still trapped in the war zone to leave the area.

Many families have taken refuge in makeshift camps as well as government owned schools in cities of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

The U.N. agency for refugees has called for increased and urgent international help to avert a tragedy.

Nearly 1 million have fled

Ariane Rummery is a spokeswoman for the U.N agency for refugees in Pakistan. She says that so far nearly one million people have abandoned their homes.

"We recognized that this is not all the people that have fled that there may well be thousands of people that have not yet registered," she explained. "So it is really a very grave humanitarian situation and a very grave challenge for the government, us in the humanitarian community and for the local community alike who are hosting the majority of these people. We need more items, we need more relief supplies and we need more funds to support this crisis. And that is why the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, is being here this week and he has called up on the international community to provide solidarity to Pakistan and to actually support the massive humanitarian relief that we need. "

Humanitarian crisis poses major challenge

The humanitarian crisis has become a major challenge for Pakistan with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani warning that the army operation against Taliban extremists may lose the support of the people if the government fails to help displaced families.

The military operation against Taliban militants in Swat and neighboring areas came after the United States and other Western allies of Pakistan accused Prime Minister Gilani's government of surrendering territory to the extremists, who had moved to within 100 kilometers of Islamabad. The growing militant influence in Pakistan has been a cause of major concern for the U.S-led forces fighting al-Qaida and Taliban extremists in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistani authorities say the offensive is targeting as many as 5,000 Taliban militants who have set up bases in the mountainous Swat and neighboring areas.

Security forces backed by helicopter gun-ships are said to have killed nearly 900 militants and destroyed dozens of their hideouts in the past one week while more than 40 soldiers also have died.