ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The Pakistani military warned today that the house-to-house combat its troops are fighting in the Swat Valley's capital would not be a decisive battle against the Taliban insurgency in the area, saying militants had slipped out of the city to fight another day.
The army has secured more than 50 percent of Mingora, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military's chief spokesman, told ABC News, but he said fighters are "withdrawing from the city." "The fighting is not as stiff as it could be. It appears that the last ditch battle will not be there," Abbas said.
Pakistani officials say the fighting in Swat and across three districts in the volatile northwest is for Pakistan's very "existence." The military has failed to finish this same battle twice before, and there is a widespread sense that if it fails again, and if the administration fails to fill the governance vacuums that helped the Taliban spread, they will never again enjoy the level of popular support that this operation has.
But that support will be tested in the next few weeks and months as more than 2 million internally displaced Pakistanis from the northwest begin to get anxious to return to their homes, aid workers say.
The fighting has created the largest population exodus since Rwanda in 1994, and with the vast majority of the displaced living in friends' or families' homes, aid workers warn that their patience will begin to fade. Many of them are already losing their only source of income: crops, which are supposed to be harvested this month and are rotting as the fighting prevents many people from returning to their farms.
"People are really getting frustrated. The support they're getting is not what they should be getting," says Amjad Jamal, who works with the World Food Program in Islamabad.
Another aid worker, who declined to be identified, said too much of the relief was going to camps and not enough was going to homes where the displaced are often straining already cramped quarters and pinched pocketbooks.
"The villages outside of the camps have received almost zero aid from anyone," the aid worker said. "Some people are saying they're going to throw strikes in the street."
The Battle for Mingora
But even those who are losing their patience say they hope the military "eliminates" the Taliban across the northwest, as the prime minister has promised it would. Originally the battle for Mingora, which usually has a population of 500,000, was thought to be a decisive one to defeat Taliban militants that used to leave decapitated bodies in the city's main square.
A resident of Mingora, who managed to use a rare working phone line this morning to speak to his family, said most of the Taliban had holed themselves up in the business district of the city, where bigger buildings with basements provide better cover than homes. He said the fighting there had been intense, especially yesterday, when the military used helicopter gunships to bomb buildings.
He told his family that the mood in the city was tense, and that residents had very little food, no gas, and no way of getting supplies.
"Whatever they already have, they're living on that," he said.
The military was forbidding people from leaving their homes, he said, warning that anyone who is walking on the street would be considered a militant and be shot. The army is worried, he said, that Taliban fighters who had shaved off their beards and cut their long hair could slip out, pretending to be residents fleeing their homes.
Human rights organizations today asked the Pakistani military to find a way to relieve residents' suffering.
"People trapped in the Swat conflict zone face a humanitarian catastrophe unless the Pakistani military immediately lifts a curfew that has been in place continuously for the last week," Brad Adams, the Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement today. "The government cannot allow the local population to remain trapped without food, clean water, and medicine as a tactic to defeat the Taliban."
Human Rights Watch Says At Least 19 Civilians Dead
But today Abbas, the army spokesman, called that proposition "militarily unviable," arguing that the army has all along been trying to convince all local residents to leave, but that the operation could not be stopped at their current stage.
The Mingora resident told his family that most of the homes had been spared and the military seemed to be relying on precision strikes against buildings from which fighters were firing on troops.
Aid agencies say the military has not been so precise in other areas of the Swat Valley.
In its statement today Human Rights Watch accused the military of killing at least 19 civilians in Charbagh, which is about 10 miles north of Mingora. The military strongly denied the story, saying that no forces had even "oriented" toward Charbagh, which is still largely under control of the Taliban. Abbas said any operation in Charbagh would come "at a later stage."
The military's fight is one of its most intense against the Taliban since 9/11. Six soldiers had been killed in last 24 hours, the army said in a statement, bringing the total number of soldiers killed in the current operations to more than 70. The army says about 1,100 Taliban fighters out of approximately 4,000 have been killed. The number is impossible to verify independently.