ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's military sought to reassure refugees returning to the war-scarred Swat Valley that security there is under control, despite fighting between government troops and militants in the region that left up to 14 dead.
Authorities have declared most of Swat cleared of Taliban fighters after a nearly three-month offensive and have allowed some of the 2 million Pakistanis who fled the fighting to begin returning home. However, officials acknowledged that some Taliban forces are holding out.
"We have cleared the area, but an incident here or there can still happen," Lt. Col. Waseem Shahid, an army spokesman in Swat, said Wednesday. "But the police are in full command of the situation and the military will stay there as long as needed."
The deadliest clash took place late Tuesday night in Kabal town, which lies across the river from the Swat Valley's main city of Mingora. Kabal has been considered a likely hide-out of the Swat Taliban's leadership.
Sajjad Kasi, an army spokesman, said security forces acting on a tip from residents raided an alleged hide-out, killing six suspected militants. The military, however, said in a statement that eight alleged insurgents, including two foreigners, and one soldier were killed in the shootout. The statement said five other suspected militants died in clashes elsewhere in the valley.
It was not possible to immediately reconcile the discrepancy in casualty numbers. It is impossible to independently confirm death tolls because access to the area has been restricted, and the military has not provided figures on how many civilians have died.
The Pakistani army says it has killed more than 1,700 militants since its latest offensive against the Taliban began in Swat more than two months ago. The United States strongly backs Islamabad's anti-Taliban campaign, viewing it as a test of Pakistan's resolve to curb a growing Islamist extremist insurgency that threatens to destabilize the nuclear-armed country.
Some 2 million residents of Swat and neighboring areas were driven from their homes by the fighting, according to the United Nations. Thousands of refugees started heading home Monday, the first day of the government's official repatriation program.
The program was supposed to focus first on about 200,000 refugees staying in relief camps and then to only allow people to return to certain zones in the valley, but complications have arisen.
Some in the camps have refused to return home until they are given promised financial assistance of around $300 per family. Others who have been staying with relatives and friends have also started to head back despite government requests that they wait. And some have gone to areas not yet technically open, including Mingora, where hundreds showed up Tuesday.
According to the government, 23,951 families are registered at relief camps in the northwest. On Wednesday, officials said 2,476 families from both relief camps and those staying elsewhere returned to the region. It was difficult to determine whether any families managed to get through using smaller, unmonitored routes.
Elsewhere in the northwest Wednesday, the military said a tribal militia in the Mohmand region killed 15 militants, while in the Bannu area police said one paramilitary soldier was killed and six policemen were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded at a police checkpoint.
Taliban militants also attacked a military checkpoint in the Spinkai Raghzai area of South Waziristan with rockets and guns, killing one soldier and wounding three more, intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
The military responded with artillery fire but militant casualties were not immediately known.