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17 civilians die in Pakistan

Times Staff Writer

Fighting raged Thursday in a scenic valley in Pakistan’s troubled northwest, killing at least 17 civilians, including seven members of a family whose home was hit by a mortar shell, local officials said.

The violence, which broke out Tuesday, has been the worst in months in the Swat valley, about 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad. Militants seeking to impose a Taliban-style social code have been burning girls schools, attacking police posts and capturing paramilitary troops.

The confrontation in Swat is a test of the 4-month-old coalition government’s controversial effort to combine the threat of force with cease-fire negotiations. In May, Pakistani authorities reached a truce with local Taliban fighters, and provincial officials said Thursday that they still hoped to salvage that accord.

The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have expressed strong concerns about Pakistan’s effort to make deals with the militants, saying it has given the insurgents greater freedom to cross the border and stage attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.

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To Pakistanis, the confrontation in Swat is alarming because the valley lies outside the semiautonomous tribal areas, in an area where the government, in theory at least, wields authority. Located in the North-West Frontier Province, Swat’s alpine resorts, mountain lakes and pine forests used to draw tens of thousands of tourists each year.

The Pakistani army claims to have killed dozens of militants in Swat since Tuesday, but a spokesman for the insurgents say the death toll is fewer than 10.

As in the past, the army sought to subdue the militants by raking the area with fire from helicopter gunships and shelling suspected insurgent positions, a tactic that local officials say is putting civilians in grave danger.

The seven-member family, including women and children, was killed before dawn Thursday in the village of Deolai, police said. Nearly three dozen other civilians were reported hurt, including a group of about 25 workers who were harvesting peaches in an orchard, according to residents.

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The military placed the valley under curfew Wednesday, but lifted it briefly Thursday to allow people to buy food. Residents reached by telephone said the militants had blown up key bridges, preventing them from fleeing.

Militants loyal to Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, a Taliban-linked commander who used a pirate FM radio station to spread his message, seized control of much of the valley last year. The army eventually moved in, driving the insurgents out of villages and into the mountains. But the fighters have since filtered back.

The main army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said officials were considering a request from the provincial government for the army to send in more troops. Officials have declined to say how many troops are involved in the current fighting.

The escalating conflict in Swat may make it extremely difficult for the army to keep a pledge made to U.S. officials last month to deploy more troops along the border to stem militant infiltration of Afghanistan.

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In another worrisome sign of deteriorating security along the border with Afghanistan, Pakistani paramilitary troops were reported to be pulling out of the Ladha Fort in the lawless tribal area of South Waziristan. The fort has been repeatedly attacked by militants.

Maj. Gen. Alam Khattak, the Frontier Corps commander in the area, told the Associated Press that the troops were leaving at tribal elders’ request. Those elders helped broker a deal with Baitullah Mahsud, who is based in South Waziristan and commands an umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.


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