Tens of thousands of civilians fled Swat valley as Pakistani war planes bombed Taliban positions Friday, a day after the prime minister ordered the military to "eliminate terrorists" in the battle to control the northwest and on the heels of a commitment to the United States to fight extremists.
Pakistan's top military spokesman announced that 160 militants have been killed in the Swat Valley during the past 24 hours.
Authorities slapped an indefinite curfew in a key area through which reinforcements were to travel to the mountainous former ski resort, ripped apart by two years of fighting amid a Taliban campaign to impose Shariah law.
Helicopter gunships, fighters and troops were all involved in operations in Swat, Major Nasir Khan, a military spokesman in Swat, said by telephone.
"During the last 24 hours approximately 160 militants have been killed in different areas," military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told a news briefing at army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said in a televised address late on Thursday that fighters were trying to hold the country hostage at gunpoint.
"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, setting the stage for a major offensive against Taliban fighters battling security forces in Swat.
Gilani did not announce the launching of a specific offensive but said the government would not bow before terrorists and would force them to lay down their arms.
Former center for tourism
The struggle in the scenic northwestern valley 130 km (80 miles) from Islamabad and a former center for tourism has become a test of Pakistan's resolve to fight a growing Taliban insurgency that has alarmed the United States.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in talks in Washington this week, assured U.S. President Barack Obama of Islamabad's commitment to defeating al Qaeda and its allies.
Pakistan efforts against fighters sheltering near the border with Afghanistan are seen as vital to efforts to defeat the insurgency in that country, while increased problems with fighters in areas closer to Islamabad, such as Swat, raised concern about the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The military's Khan said: "Our gunship helicopters today targeted and destroyed two militant hideouts in Kabal," referring to a fighter stronghold 17 km (10 miles) northwest of Swat's main town of Mingora.
He said there was also ground action accompanied by air strikes in other parts of the valley, and an important Taliban commander had been killed the previous day.
Reinforcements have been arriving in Swat as a peace pact collapsed. On Wednesday, soldiers launched assaults in the outskirts of Mingora, where the Taliban occupied important buildings.
Authorities agreed in February to a Taliban demand for the introduction of Shariah law in the valley but the fighters refused to disarm, and pushed out of Swat closer to the capital.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting this week. With hundreds of thousands already displaced by earlier battles between the government and Islamist fighters, aid groups said the new exodus was intensifying a humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed his deep concern about the safety of people displaced by the fighting while the International Committee of the Red Cross warned of an escalating crisis as thousands more bedraggled refugees streamed out of Swat, some on foot leading goats and cattle, others crammed into cars with bags, blankets and bundles of clothes.
"Civilians are suffering at the hands of both the army and the Taliban. The Taliban are killing residents who don't side with them," said Nasir Jamal, a medical shop owner, whose house was hit by a mortar shell.
Although many Pakistanis have had doubts about the need to fight the fighters, saying Washington wanted Islamabad to fight its battle, the mood among at least some seemed to be shifting.
"If the government is serious in eliminating fighters from Swat then we will support the military operation," Khalid Khan, a social worker and resident of the Dheri Baba area in Swat, told Reuters.
"We are ready to make every sacrifice if the government really means business this time," said Gul Omer, a poultry trader, referring to previous, inconclusive military action that was followed by the peace deal.