Military commanders in Pakistan say that an anti-Taliban offensive in and around the northwestern Swat valley has recaptured a large swath of territory after destroying terrorist bases and killing hundreds of militants.
Under pressure from the United States and other western allies to reign in extremist forces, the Pakistani government ordered the anti-insurgency operation three weeks ago. But the move has triggered an exodus of nearly two million civilians with some 200,000 ending up in poorly-equipped makeshift camps.
Amid growing skepticism about the progress of the offensive, the high number of militant deaths and whether civilians have also been killed, the Pakistan army flew a small group of reporters from foreign organizations into Swat this week on Friday.
Dozens of Pakistani soldiers are dug in on the recently captured strategic ridge, Banai Baba Ziarat, which is located at an altitude of just over 2100 meters and is the highest place in the Swat valley.
Army discovers Taliban's tunnels
Senior military officials say that until a few days ago, the ridge served as a major training facility for Taliban terrorists. It has a network of well-equipped tunnels. The biggest was six-meters-wide and 24-meters-long. While guiding reporters into one of the tunnels, Major Mansoor said the militants would go down in the valley to kidnap skilled civilians and would force them to dig the tunnels.
"You are right now in a tunnel that was probably used for living plus storage of ammunition and storage of weapons and it might have been used for making plans and command post sort of things," he said.
Regional commander Major-General Sajjad Ghani says the capture of Banai Baba Ziarat was a major setback for the militants and has paved the way for gains on the battlefield. He says his troops' mission is to "kill and eliminate" terrorists as well as their bases without giving them any concession.
"We have had the experiences of talks of surrender and I don't think so there is any slightest consideration at this point in time of accepting any ceasefire or anything of that kind and we will pursue these operations to their logical end," added Ghani.
Official death toll: 1,000 militants, 63 soldiers
Pakistani military officials claim ground and air attacks have killed more than 1,000 militants in the ongoing offensive. The military has also confirmed more than 63 soldiers have died in the fighting.
But while flying over the valley, there was little evidence of the intense fighting. General Ghani insists this is because army raids and strikes are mostly hitting militant hideouts set up in high mountains. He dismissed suggestions that many civilians have also died in the army shelling.
"In fact from this place and as you have flown up the helicopter, you must have seen a lot of the houses, a lot of the towns," said Ghani. "Please show me one destroyed house with an artillery shell or with a bomb strike and I will be convinced. There is none what so ever."
Pakistani army says militant commander Maulana Fazalullah is hiding
Militants in the Swat region are being led by extremist cleric, Maulana Fazalullah, who is believed to be hiding in his stronghold of Peochar, which Pakistani troops have currently surrounded.
Since establishing his control over most of the valley two years ago, the Taliban commander has ordered kidnappings and executions of a large number of security personnel as well as pro-government politicians.
Commander General Ghani says his forces are looking for Fazalullah. He says the extremist cleric is on the run and keeps changing his locations. The general does not rule out the possibility of terrorist leaders including Fazalullah slipping out of the area.
"This is a very difficult area. It is a rugged terrain it is very high mountains, deep valleys, thickly wooded and forested areas. The lay of the terrain and geography is such that it provides him [Fazalullah] indeed with ample opportunities to make his escape good," he said.
The Pakistani military has launched several offensives in Swat in the past two years to rein in Taliban extremists. Opposition parties and the local population criticized it for using force rather than negotiations.
Analysts say Taliban lost public support in Swat
However, observers and military officials say that public support for the Taliban has almost disappeared in recent months because of extreme acts, such as slaughtering opponents, flogging people for alleged un-Islamic acts and violating their own commitments to end the violence.
Critics fear support for the current army action may not last longer if the war against the Taliban in Swat and neighboring districts drags on and hundreds of thousands of displaced families are neglected.
When the full-scale military operation began in the valley early this month, officials estimated there where as many as five thousand Taliban militants. Pakistani military claims a majority of the fighters, mostly new recruits have fled the offensive and those still fighting are being described as hardcore militants.
Pakistani army officers say their mission is to kill all of them, dismissing suggestions they their soldiers are being sucked into an unending guerilla war in the Swat region. While security forces are on the verge of capturing the town of Mingora, the administrative center of the valley, regional commanders are confident most territory in Swat will be made safe within next two months to allow displaced families to return to their homes in the former tourist haven.