ISLAMABAD – A Pakistani military offensive against Taliban fighters near the Afghan border has killed more than 1,000 suspected insurgents and "will continue till the last Taliban are flushed out," a top official said Sunday.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik, speaking after visiting Pakistanis displaced by the battle, also wouldn't rule out extending the operation in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas to other parts of the northwest where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have long thrived.
It was not possible to independently verify the figures provided by Malik because the territories bombarded over the past three weeks are too dangerous for journalists to freely roam. An army statement Sunday afternoon said 25 militants and a soldier had died in the previous 24 hours of the operation, and that security forces had surrounded and entered two key towns in Swat.
Malik's comments appeared designed to show resolve amid intense U.S. pressure on Islamabad to clear al-Qaida and Taliban havens along the border region, strongholds that threaten Afghan-based U.S. and NATO troops and nuclear-armed Pakistan itself.
"The operation is going in the right direction as we had planned," Malik said in a televised news conference from Mardan, a district hosting several relief camps for some of the nearly 1 million people turned refugees. "People wish to go back. That is what the government also wants. I cannot give a time but we will try (to complete the operation) at the earliest."
The Taliban's ability to overrun Swat, once of Pakistan's premier tourist destinations, had proved particularly embarrassing to the Pakistani military and the weak civilian government.
Many of the main militant safe havens, however, are in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas, with South Waziristan serving as the primary base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
Britain's Sunday Times reported that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said military action would follow in the tribal belt.
"We're going to go into Waziristan, all these regions, with army operations," the newspaper quoted Zardari as saying in an interview. "Swat is just the start. It's a larger war to fight."
Zardari's spokesmen could not immediately be reached Sunday. Malik did not respond directly when asked about a potential extension.
"Wherever the government requires an operation, we will, God willing, do that," he said.
Malik also denied allegations that Pakistan had lost control of any of its territory, though accounts from the roughly 3,500-square mile Swat Valley alone have long suggested that government authority in much of that region was nonexistent.
"I should say there are pockets in Swat, maybe 2 percent maximum, where the Taliban are creating problems," Malik said. "This operation will continue till the last Taliban are flushed out."
Malik also implied that unspecified "anti-state elements" interested in Pakistan's nuclear weapons were arming the militants with everything from rocket launchers to land mines.
"The Taliban should tell the nation who are their godfathers behind them, who are giving them supplies," Malik said. "Obviously, they are those people who are keeping an eye on Pakistani nukes, they are the people who don't like the stability of Pakistan."
The operation has involved fighting in the Lower Dir and Buner districts that dates back to last month, but the offensive began in full force in Swat in early May.
Of the nearly 1 million civilians who have fled the affected areas, about 100,000 are now staying in sweltering relief camps. The military has warned that some militants are trying to flee as well, some after shaving off their beards to blend in with refugees.
The army statement Sunday said security forces were battling militants on the outskirts of Swat's main town, Mingora, where many of the estimated 4,000 Taliban fighters in the valley are believed to be holed up.
It said security forces had surrounded and entered the towns of Matta and Kanju to take on the militants, and it requested civilians still in those areas to stay away from the Taliban hide-outs. It also said troops were making gains in the remote Piochar area, the rear base of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah.
The military does not explain how it differentiates civilian from militant killings, and it has not released a civilian death toll, but witnesses have reported many innocent people have been wounded or killed.
In Pakistan's southern city of Karachi, meanwhile, police said a tip-off led them to arrest four alleged militants from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned group linked to both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The men are suspected of planning attacks on high-value targets in Karachi, senior police officer Chaudhry Mohammad Aslam said.