MINGORA, Pakistan – The military lifted curfews Monday in seven towns in the Swat Valley in a further sign of confidence that its offensive against the Taliban there is making progress, while a bomb killed two people elsewhere in the northwest.
The order will allow thousands of people caught in the battle zone to leave their homes and search for food and other supplies that have dwindled, often to nothing, in the past month of fighting.
The loosening of restrictions posed new dangers for residents, however, with one saying he saw soldiers open fire at civilians in Mingora town as they emerged from hiding places, apparently because they suspected they were Taliban.
"I saw two people who came out to ask for relief goods and they opened the fire on them from the mountains," said Gohar Ali, one of many Mingora residents who had been trapped for weeks in his home until a curfew was lifted briefly on Sunday. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said he was unaware of the incident.
The military said in a statement that daytime curfews were lifted Monday in the Swat towns of Bahrain, Madyan, Fatehpur, Khwazakhela, Matta and Alpurai and in the nearby district of Shangla.
Pakistan launched an offensive against militants in Swat and surrounding districts a month ago after they violated the terms of a cease-fire and advanced into a region close to the capital, Islamabad.
The Swat offensive has earned U.S. praise as troops have regained large swaths of the region from an estimated 4,000 militants. The fighting has forced up to 3 million people to evacuate, threatening a humanitarian crisis.
A string of homicide bombings away from Swat are likely retaliatory attacks by the Taliban, officials say. A blast at a busy bus terminal in Kohat town on Monday killed at least two people and wounded at least 18 others, said local police officer Zafarullah Khan.
A day after the military declared it had retaken the town, Mingora on Sunday was battle-scarred and an Associated Press reporter who visited say two decomposing bodies lying unburied in a cemetery and a third, charred corpse near a shopping mall.
"We have been starving for many days. We have been cooking tree leaves to keep ourselves alive. Thank God it is over," said resident Afzal Khan. "We need food. We need help. We want peace."
Most of Mingora's at least 375,000 residents fled the offensive. The military briefly lifted a curfew Sunday, allowing some of the 20,000 or so who remained to buy provisions in the few shops that were open.
About 200 families returned to Mingora during Sunday's lull in the curfew, but refugees should not go home yet because the security situation was still unstable and the town has no power, said local lawmaker Haji Mohammad Adeel.
International Committee of the Red Cross officials who visited other parts of the valley Saturday were "alarmed" at what they found.
"There is no running water, no electricity, and food is scarce," team leader Daniel O'Malley said in a statement Sunday. "There is no fuel left for generators and most medical facilities in the district are no longer functioning. Phone lines are down, so people have been cut off from the outside world."
Elsewhere along the Afghan border area, dozens of militants died in weekend clashes with soldiers in the South Waziristan tribal region, fighting that could nudge the military to expand its offensive beyond Swat.
Insurgents attacked an army convoy and a checkpoint Saturday night, sparking clashes that killed at least 25 militants and seven soldiers, the military said.
President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday ordered the immediate release of 500 million rupees ($6 million) to provide aid to refugees, and said he would appeal for more international help during a visit to EU headquarters.
"Relief and rehabilitation of the displaced persons is central to this fight," Zardari was quoted as saying by the state-run news agency.