Hundreds of thousands of people in northwest Pakistan continue to flee the ongoing army offensive against Taliban militants.  Following days without electricity and water, even people outside the conflict zone are scrambling to leave.

Pakistan's army continues to assault Taliban positions in the northwest Malakand region using airstrikes, artillery fire and ground troops.  Heavy fighting continues in Swat's main city Mingora, and clashes are still being reported in neighboring Buner and Dir districts, which the army first entered about two weeks ago.

The head of Pakistan's interior ministry says about 700 militants have been killed in the operation, but there has been no independent confirmation of that figure or an official tally of civilian deaths.

There are widely varying estimates on the number of people fleeing the conflict and those still trapped by fighting.  Malakand residents say the intensity of the army offensive and intimidation by local Taliban have kept many people from leaving.  Local news agencies report as many as 700,000 people may still be trying to escape.

The United Nations estimates about 360,000 people have fled the recent fighting, joining about half a million Pakistanis displaced by violence in other northwestern areas in the past year.

Swat residents contacted by VOA reported a harrowing journey avoiding army artillery barrages and Taliban fighters.  One 15-year-old girl from Swat spoke to VOA at a village just outside Islamabad.

She says we left Swat with no extra clothes or food.  We have no money to buy food and are sleeping on the concrete floor of this house.  She says she does not sleep much because of the heat and mosquitoes.  Even civilians who do not live directly in the war zone are fleeing after the fighting cut-off basic services for days.

One resident of Buner tells VOA desperate conditions have forced him to try to relocate his family.

"In my area we do not have any electricity, we do not have any water, we do not have mobile phones.  We do not even have any vegetables because all of the shopkeepers have left Buner," he said.  "To buy the vegetables we are coming out of Buner to district Mardan."

The resident says the vast majority of his neighbors have already left.  Many of those who remain are men left behind to protect their homes.

With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, several temporary camps for displaced people in the region report they have reached capacity.  In nearby cities, rental property is scarce.

The Buner resident has been searching, unsuccessfully, for a home to rent.

"Since the last two days I am searching for a house.  I contacted about 100 property dealers and nobody has a house.  There was one three-bedroom house that normally rent was like 10,000 [rupees, or about $125] and they were asking 70,000 rupees [about $875] for one month," he said.

Politicians in Islamabad have vowed the military operation will succeed in clearing Taliban from the area soon.  Meanwhile, elsewhere in Pakistan's northwest a suicide bomber detonated a blast at a security checkpoint, killing six civilians and two paramilitary soldiers.  No group has claimed responsibility, but Taliban militants routinely target security forces.