ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani commandos dropped by helicopter into the Taliban's mountain base in Swat on Tuesday, in what appeared to be a stepped-up offensive against the extremists who seized the area in defiance of a peace agreement, the army announced.
The army said the commandos flew into the remote Peochar area, thought to be the main stronghold of the Taliban forces who seized control of Swat and the likely hideout of its top leadership, including its chief, Maulana Fazlullah.
The airborne assault might mark the opening phase of a ground operation after days of artillery barrages and airstrikes on suspected militant positions in and around Swat, a picturesque valley and one-time tourist destination about 100 miles north of Islamabad.
Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman, said its commandos were on a "search and destroy" mission in Peochar, which is thought to house training camps and ammunition stores.
"We're cutting the base of the militants who operate in the valley and the urban areas," Abbas said.
Previous offensives against the Taliban in Swat over the past 18 months didn't include ground assaults into Peochar, despite the widespread knowledge that Fazlullah and his men retreat to the mountain redoubt to evade attack.
Pakistan often has conducted what critics say are half-hearted operations against Islamic militants, which, as in the case of Swat, have ended with peace deals that left the extremists controlling large slices of territory along the border with Afghanistan.
While there were strong signs that the latest offensive is more determined, questions remained about the scale and intent of the six-day-old operation. It was launched under severe pressure from the United States, which accused Pakistan of "abdicating" to the Taliban by accepting the imposition of Islamic law on the area.
The troop deployment appeared underweight for the task of recapturing Swat, and the death toll of 751 militants that the army gave seemed high and couldn't be verified.
The army is the only source of information on the progress of the offensive as news media and nongovernmental organizations can't operate in Swat. The army has declined to give any figures for civilian casualties, which have been significant, according to displaced residents and nongovernmental organizations.
In Washington, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had no reliable information on the offensive.
"The only information I have is fragmentary. It's more journalist than intelligence," Holbrooke said. "I don't really trust what I hear from a situation like that until the dust of battle has settled."
The army said the 751 militants it had killed in Swat and the adjoining districts of Buner and Dir included 200 wiped out in the bombing of a training camp. It said that 29 soldiers had died and 77 had been wounded.
"The militants and the miscreants are on the run," Abbas said. "The criminal elements who had earlier joined the militants in Swat are deserting them, along with the new recruits."
Abbas estimated the number of "hard-core" Taliban at 1,500, a figure much higher than the army had given previously. He put the total number of militants at 4,000 to 5,000.
The army says that up to 15,000 soldiers are involved in the operation, a number that's far lower than the troop-to-guerrilla ratio of 10 to 1 set for a standard counterinsurgency operation.
"We know surprisingly little — in fact beyond official daily briefings almost nothing — about the war with the Taliban," said an editorial Tuesday in The News, a Pakistani daily newspaper. "There is guarded support from the common man (for the operation), but questions are beginning to be asked — where are all these dead Taliban for one? Why is artillery being used to attack the Taliban rather than infantry who can then hold the position they have just taken? "
Another unanswered issue is how the army will extricate the remaining civilians from Swat.
The army said Tuesday that the urban warfare phase of the offensive hadn't begun. It estimated that up to 200,000 people are still in the main town of Mingora. Thousands more are trapped in other parts of Swat.
Abbas said that the army was taking "max measures" to avoid civilian casualties by targeting only "confirmed" hideouts and strongholds with aerial bombardments.
Human Rights Watch, an independent U.S.-based human rights group, charged that the Taliban and the army in the past had shown "scant regard" for the welfare of civilians in Swat and in the tribal area that runs along the Afghan border.
"The United States has urged Pakistan to find a military solution to the Taliban," said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, "but it must also send the message that the laws of war must be followed and civilians protected."
The army said that some 750,000 people had evacuated Swat and the surrounding districts in the last few weeks, increasing Pakistan's population of "internally displaced people" to 1.3 million. Hundreds of thousands already had been made homeless by anti-Taliban operations elsewhere in the northwest part of the country.
Holbrooke put the number of displaced people from Swat higher and warned that the figure is likely to grow.
"One thing is clear: Nine hundred thousand refugees have been registered with the U.N. in that area, and we have a major, major refugee crisis," he said. "We look like we're heading for about 1 million to 1.3 million refugees."
He said the United States had provided $57 million in emergency funds for the refugees, and he urged Congress to approve legislation swiftly that would provide massive new financial aid to Pakistan.
The U.N. World Food Program announced that it would double emergency food assistance in response to the crisis, and it appealed for urgent international aid.
Holbrooke acknowledged that Pakistan could be destabilized further by an Obama administration plan to launch a new offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan with an additional 17,000 U.S. troops who are due to deploy there this year.
The militants, under pressure from the stepped-up U.S. operations in the opium-producing southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, could move across the border into Pakistan's western province of Baluchistan, he said.
"An additional amount of U.S. troops, and particularly if they are successful in Helmand and Kandahar, could end up creating a pressure in Pakistan, which would add to the instability," he said, adding that the danger was discussed within the administration and that the U.S. military "is well aware of it."
Holbrooke said the administration was working "intensely" to help prepare the Pakistani military to avoid a repeat of what happened after the 2001 U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, when thousands of Taliban fighters and al Qaida terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, escaped into Pakistan's tribal area, sowing the seeds of the insurgency.
At the same time, he said that the U.S. troop buildup was "absolutely critical" because the former Bush administration had failed to deploy sufficient forces in Afghanistan.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
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