Troops Encircle Taliban Stronghold as U.N. Asks for $543 Million for Refugees

Troops are encircling Taliban militants in their mountain base as well as the main town in the Swat Valley, a Pakistani general said Friday, as the U.N. appealed for $543 million to ease the suffering of nearly 2 million refugees from the fighting.

Elsewhere in the northwest, a car bomb exploded close to a movie theater in the city of Peshawar, killing at least four people and wounding 20 others, witnesses and police office Noor Khan said. It was unclear who was behind the attack, but militants have targeted movie theaters before in the region, believing them to be un-Islamic.

With skepticism growing about the progress of the month-old army offensive in the northwestern region, the army flew a handful of reporters from foreign news organizations into Swat on Friday.

An Associated Press reporter aboard the helicopter saw no cars and few people in the town of Mingora or on roads farther up the valley, a former tourist haven just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.

From the air, there was little evidence of the fierce fighting and airstrikes that the military claims have already killed more than 1,000 militants as well as some 60 soldiers.

But a senior commander insisted the army was trapping militants in Mingora and Piochar, a side-valley farther north that is the stronghold of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah.

"The noose is tightening around them. Their routes of escape have been cut off," Maj. Gen. Sajad Ghani said. "It's just a question of time before (Taliban leaders) are eliminated."

Pakistan launched an offensive last month to halt a Taliban advance from Swat toward the capital, Islamabad, that prompted U.S. warnings about the stability of the nuclear-armed country.

While the U.S. has praised the military operation, it is also contributing to a gathering effort to shield the government from the political fallout from the humanitarian crisis.

Officials say 1.9 million people have fled the fighting. More than 160,000 are staying in sweltering camps just south of the battle zone. The rest have been taken in by relatives.

The United Nations said its appeal would help provide food, schooling and health care to the multitude displaced from the Swat area and by fighting in other border regions last year.

"The scale of this displacement is extraordinary in terms of size and speed and has caused incredible suffering," said Martin Mogwanja, the acting U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Pakistan. "We are calling for generous support from the international community."

The U.N. said the figure included some $88 million from the United States, which this week pledged total assistance of $110 million in emergency aid.

The government said Thursday that international donors had pledged a total of $224 million. Pakistan, which is heavily dependent on foreign aid, has pledged $100 million of its own.

The Obama administration has declared eliminating militant havens in Pakistan vital to its goals of defeating Al Qaeda and winning the war in Afghanistan.

But an army failure or a botched relief effort in Swat would further undermine Pakistani enthusiasm for tough military action inside its own borders.

The army claims to have won back swaths of territory in Swat, which was popular with tourists before the Taliban took over, enforcing a hardline brand of Islamic law and beheading opponents.

However, it faces stiff resistance from thousands more fighters and has ventured no prediction of when the Taliban will be defeated.

Ghani, the commander of military operations in the upper portion of the Swat valley, sought Friday to counter allegations that many civilians had died in army shelling. Reporters are unable to work in the war zone, making it difficult to verify accounts of the fighting.

Only ground troops were operating in residential areas and the number of innocents killed in the area under his responsibility had "not reached double figures," he said.

Violence is also rising in the tribal regions along the Afghan border from where Taliban and Al Qaeda militants launch attacks on both sides of the frontier.

On Thursday, a suicide car bomber attacked a paramilitary fort in the town of Jandola, killing four soldiers and four civilians, intelligence officials said.