MINGORA, Pakistan – Pakistan's army says 55 Taliban and three soldiers have died in the last 24 hours of its offensive in the Swat Valley area.
A military statement issued Friday says militants are fleeing the valley after shaving off their beards. It appealed to fleeing civilians to help authorities identify and arrest them.
Pakistan's army lifted its curfew in the battle-scarred area on Friday, allowing thousands to flee as troops prepared for street-by-street battles with Taliban militants entrenched in the valley's biggest town.
Pakistan has vowed to eliminate militants from Swat and two neighboring districts under intense American pressure for action against extremists threatening both nuclear-armed Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.
In the latest exodus, columns of cars, trucks and horse-drawn carts packed with people and laden with bundles of possessions streamed out of Mingora, according to witnesses and television reports.
Some picked their way past the carcasses of burned-out vehicles that failed to make it to safety. Others opted for rough dirt roads through the fields and mountains. Many more were hurrying south on foot with no more than the clothes on their backs.
"I was waiting for the opportunity to leave Mingora. I got the chance today, and now I am going to Mardan," a city just to the south, said Ismail Khan, a 66-year-old shooing his relatives onto a bus.
Khan said he had seen bodies lying in some of the fast-emptying town's streets, but he didn't know if they were militants or civilians.
Pakistan's army, which launched its assault last month, said Thursday that its troops had advanced to within four miles (six kilometers) of Mingora and urged people to flee.
"The civilian population should leave the city so that security forces can take the militants to task in street-to-street fighting," spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
According to the United Nations, more than 900,000 people have already abandoned the area amid escalating clashes, which the army says has left more than 800 militants and dozens of troops dead.
Some 80,000 refugees have moved into sweltering camps set up by the government and the United Nations, most of them near Mardan.
Khalid Khan, a government official in Mardan, told the Express News TV channel on Friday that authorities were setting up more camps for the displaced.
The Swat operation is a key test of Pakistan's will and ability to roll back the advance of homegrown Taliban militants, who last month seized a district just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad, under cover of a since-abandoned peace process.
The army says it is advancing slowly in an attempt to avoid civilian casualties. Public opinion appears to support the offensive. But analysts say the mood will quickly sour if the region descends into prolonged bloodshed.
Pakistan's military complains of a lack of costly modern equipment including night-vision technology and helicopters — shortcomings that U.S. officials have pledged to address.
Washington is already training a Pakistani paramilitary force deployed across the Afghan frontier region, considered the likely hiding place of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
A senior U.S. defense official told The Associated Press that the Pentagon is considering plans to accelerate and expand the training of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.
U.S. and Pakistani officials are discussing a program that would increase the number of U.S. special operations trainers in the country and expand the schooling to the regular army, said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are preliminary and no decisions have been made.