ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's Prime Minister used a late-night, nationally televised address to officially announce a military operation to "eliminate" the Taliban in the country's volatile northwest, where the largest human exodus in South Asia since the partition of India and Pakistan continued for the twelfth straight day.
The speech by Yusuf Raza Gilani confirmed a military operation that had already begun in the Swat Valley, the headquarters of the local Taliban where the army has twice failed to dislodge well-armed and well-funded militants.
Military sources tell ABC News that they have received orders to" eliminate terrorist once and for all."
The army is moving in "pincer formation from Buner and narrowing it down to the narrow valleys of Swat," the military official said, describing a move from a district south of Swat up into the valley. At the same time, the official said, the military has intercepted Taliban communications urging militants to move into populated areas, seemingly to use residents as human shields.
Military jets and gunship helicopters have started pounding militant positions in Swat, military officials and residents say.
The fighting in Swat is an extension of fighting across the Northwest Frontier Province that has forced up to a million residents to flee their homes, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Residents from the area say they have been held hostage by a Taliban that has spread and brought their brand of justice with them, whipping women in the streets and beheading security forces who oppose them. Some of the residents are fleeing as far as Karachi, the southern port city, but most cannot afford to go farther than Swabi and Mardan, two districts between Swat and Islamabad where there is no fighting.
"Distance that we used to cover in 15 minutes today took us three hours" Gul Zaman told ABC News by phone as he fled the area.
The exodus of residents threatens to turn into a humanitarian crisis. The provincial government admits it does not have enough money to build adequate camps, and officials with the UN's refugee agency admit any camp they would set up would take months.
Falied Attempt for Peace with Taliban
"I call for the international community to help the internally displaced people and to help the institutions of Pakistan," Gilani said.
Gilani's announcement follows the third failed attempt to make peace with the Taliban in Swat. The latest effort, in February, called for the Taliban to lay down their arms in exchange for the military stopping operations and the imposition of Islamic law across a third of the Northwest Frontier Province.
The local government, led by a secular Pashtun party, had been advocating for the peace deal, saying it was the only way to calm Swat after the military's failures to do so. But a senior minister in the local administration admitted that the government had allowed the Taliban to go too far and had let their chosen negotiator, Sufi Muhammad, twist their arms.
"It was a classic camel and the tent story," the minister said, referring to the Arab proverb that once a camel gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.
Gilani said the Taliban had broken their promise, refusing to lay down their arms and so the government had no choice but to launch the operation.
"In order to restore honor and dignity of our homeland and to protect the people, the armed forces have been called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists," he said.
Even traditional critics of the government said Gilani's announcement was the first time this administration developed a clear and decisive policy to confront the Taliban menace.
"At least they have a policy of action, rather than a policy of inaction that we've seen for the last year," Marvi Menon, a senior member of parliament in an opposition party, told a local television channel.
Any military operation in Swat, where Taliban forces have been digging in for two years, will likely be drawn out and take place in highly populated areas. Residents criticize the military of failing to conduct surgical strikes, accusing them instead of firing indiscriminately.
Residents warn that if the population is going to support the operation the army must be more precise in its attacks.