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Army offensive in Pakistan's Swat spurs fears of humanitarian crisis

The Pakistani army stepped up its offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley Thursday, fuelling concerns that a brewing humanitarian crisis was worsening.

The Pakistani army stepped up its offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley Thursday, fuelling concerns that a brewing humanitarian crisis was worsening.

Government warplanes, helicopter gunships and artillery pounded militant targets in the area while thousands of residents tried to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

The military said it had killed more than 80 militants in fighting in the region on Wednesday, but has not released casualty figures for civilians.

The army offensive in Swat has all but quashed a peace pact under which the government allowed the implementation of Islamic law in the surrounding region.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan has said February's peace deal is already "dead."

Authorities are bracing for an exodus of an estimated 500,000 civilians from the valley, an alpine resort popular with tourists before the Taliban violently seized control of it in late 2007.

More than 550,000 Pakistanis driven out by fighting in other regions of the northwest are already living in makeshift camps or with relatives, adding a growing humanitarian crisis to the country's daunting security, economic and political problems.

'Helpless, frustrated'

Much of the current fighting centres around the main Swat town of Mingora. A health worker said militants had instructed her to stay at home. She said she heard firing throughout Wednesday night and into Thursday morning.

"I don't know when some weapon will hit our home and kill us," she said.

Ayaz Khan, a 39-year-old from the Kanju area of Swat, said he loaded his family into his car early Thursday, but that rocks, boulders and tree trunks laid across the road forced him to turn back.

"I am helpless, frustrated and worried for my family," he told The Associated Press by telephone. He appealed to authorities to clear the barriers and let people move to safety.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday it no longer had access to the Swat region and could no longer verify casualty reports.

"Clearly, we're facing a major humanitarian crisis," said Red Cross spokesman Sebastian Brack, adding his organization was mobilizing trucks, medical and supplies and food.

"We're going to do everything we can to be ready to help in the medium run. Should the situation become more prolonged, we will be able to mobilize more people, more resources."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said Wednesday he was deeply concerned about the plight of the tens of thousands of displaced civilians and Afghan refugees in the northwest.

U.S. pressure

Pakistan has come under increasing international pressure, particularly from the United States, to crack down on the Taliban in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday praised Pakistan's recent offensive.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday, offered assurances his country will deliver in the fight against the Taliban. He also appealed for more U.S help in reversing the extension of Taliban-held territory to within 100 kilometres of the capital, Islamabad.

Gen. Ashfaz Parvez Kayani, the chief of Pakistan's army, said it would commit enough of its resources to "ensure a decisive ascendancy over the militants" in the country.

But there was no sign of a major military push in Swat — to the frustration of some.

"If the government, the army wants to control and crush the Taliban, why don't they send ground troops to flush them out? Why they are only shelling, which hurts the public most of all and creates anti-government feeling?" said Yar Mohammad, a 50-year-old stone mason.

U.S. and NATO officials have also condemned Pakistan's peace deal with the Taliban, saying they fear it creates a sanctuary for al-Qaeda allies who launch attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.

But U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday there were no plans to deploy American forces in Pakistan. Speaking at a question-and-answer session at a U.S. army camp in southern Afghanistan, Gates told a sergeant he didn't have to "worry about going to Pakistan."

The Swat Taliban are estimated to have up to 7,000 fighters — many with training and battle experience — equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, explosives and automatic weapons. They are up against some 15,000 Pakistani troops who until recent days had been confined to their barracks under the peace deal.

With files from The Associated Press