Pakistani cities the new battleground

* Military spokesman says most Swat Taliban appear to have fled after initially putting up stiff resistance

While the military proclaimed another victory in Swat on Saturday, Pakistan found itself confronting a new battlefront – a bombing campaign in the country’s cities.

Troops now have complete control over Mingora, military spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas has said. Only last week, the military said it expected a long, hard-fought battle in and around Mingora. It now appears that after initially putting up stiff resistance, most Taliban chose to flee. “When they realised that they were being encircled and the noose was tightening, they decided not to give a pitched battle,” Abbas said.

But bombers struck in three cities. On Wednesday in Lahore, they killed 27 people. On Thursday, they set off bombs on motorcycles parked in Peshawar, and exchanged fire with police. At least six people were killed. That night, suicide bombers killed four police officers on the outskirts of Peshawar and two in Dera Ismail Khan. Security has been tightened in Islamabad and other major cities. In Peshawar, many people avoided mosques and bazaars. Schools and colleges were shut down, and extra police patrolled the streets.

Pakistani officials say that some Taliban fighters will inevitably escape. Authorities say Taliban have been shaving off beards and losing themselves among the masses of the internally displaced persons streaming into camps. Authorities say they have arrested 39 suspected Taliban from the houses where IDPs were staying. Abbas said troops have set up checkpoints on roads in Swat to intercept the fleeing Taliban, but they do not have the manpower to patrol the myriad footpaths.

“They’re able to flee, but we’re trying to catch as many as possible,” he said. More than 1,200 Taliban have been killed and 79 captured since the offensive began. Eighty-one troops have died in the fighting.\06\01\story_1-6-2009

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