ISLAMABAD – The Taliban left so many mutilated bodies at the crossing — some hanging from trees with threatening notes — that Pakistanis in the Swat Valley's main town took to calling it "bloody intersection."
On Sunday, the army said that spot and seven other major crossings in Mingora were secured, part of street-by-street urban fighting whose success is considered critical to flushing out the militants from the valley as a whole.
The advances in Swat came as helicopter gunships pounded alleged militant hide-outs in a nearby tribal region, killing at least 18 people, while police announced the arrest of a militant commander and six other Taliban fighters elsewhere in the northwest.
The events underscored how widespread and entrenched militant activity is along Pakistan's rugged region bordering Afghanistan, and how pushing the Taliban out of Swat is unlikely to defuse the overall insurgency beleaguering the nuclear-armed Muslim nation.
The U.S. has pushed Pakistan to use force to root out the Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents, who are often involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO troops across the border. The operation in Swat has strong support from Washington, and retaking Mingora, the valley's main commercial hub, could be the stiffest test for the security forces.
A military statement Sunday said forces had encountered at least 12 roadside bombs while securing the eight intersections. Five suspected militants were killed in various parts of Mingora while 14 others were arrested, the army said.
The retaking of Green Chowk could have serious symbolic value.
Residents nicknamed it "khooni chowk" or "bloody intersection" because the militants would leave their victims' bodies there — some decapitated, some killed in other brutal fashions. The dead often were left hanging from trees. Some had notes attached that accused the victims of spying and told local residents not to move the bodies until specified times.
It was just one fear tactic used by Taliban fighters to exert control over the population of Mingora, which when not under army siege normally has at least 375,000 residents.
Some 10,000 to 20,000 residents are still stranded in the town, according to the army.
One trapped civilian told The Associated Press via phone Saturday night that gunshots were ringing through the air, first continuously then at intervals. He said he had tried to flee the city twice but failed due to the fighting and lack of transportation.
"I will try to leave again whenever I get another chance," said Fazal Wadood, a local leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party. "It is like inviting death to stay here anymore."
Overall in the valley, 10 militants were killed in the past 24 hours while three security troops died, the army statement said.
It added that troops had entered Piochar village, a hub in a remote part of Swat that is the rear base for Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah. A huge cache of arms and a bomb-making factory were unearthed, the statement said.
Officials have downplayed reports that the army would soon expand the offensive to the lawless, semiautonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. However, violence has continued to flare in those areas.
On Sunday morning in the Orakzai tribal region, helicopter gunships pounded suspected militant targets in multiple locations, including a religious school, local government official Mohammad Yasin said.
At least six civilians were among the 18 dead, he said, adding the targeted spots were strongholds of Hakeemullah Mehsud, a deputy to Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud. Hundreds fled the area amid the fighting, he said.
Also Sunday, police in nearby Charsadda district said they caught seven Taliban militants during a raid on a religious school. They included Qari Ihsanullah, a Taliban commander suspected in attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Charsadda police Chief Riaz Khan said.
"We recovered three suicide jackets, explosives and assault rifles," he said of the Saturday night raid.
The military says about 1,100 suspected insurgents have died so far in the monthlong offensive in Swat and neighboring districts. It has not given any tally of civilian deaths, and it's unclear how it is separating noncombatants killed from militants. Residents fleeing the region have reported dozens of ordinary Pakistanis killed in the fight.
Some 1,500 to 2,000 hard-core insurgent fighters remain in Swat, the army says. Information provided by the military and civilians is nearly impossible to verify independently because of limited access to the area.
The offensive has also triggered an exodus of nearly 1.9 million refugees, more than 160,000 to relief camps. Some fear the generally broad public support for the military campaign could drain away if the refugees' plight worsens or if the army gets bogged down too long.