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Pakistani refugees accelerate exodus as army, Taliban clash

Children line up to receive hot tea at a refugee camp near Mardan, Pakistan, Friday.<a href=""/>

Children line up to receive hot tea at a refugee camp near Mardan, Pakistan, Friday.<a href=""/>

MARDAN, Pakistan – Pakistan’s army vowed Friday to eliminate militants from a northwestern valley but warned that its under-equipped troops face thousands of Taliban extremists who have seized towns, planted bombs, and coerced children to be suicide bombers.

As air force jets roared overhead and gunbattles raged, terrified civilians from the Swat Valley and neighboring districts accelerated their exodus, with United Nations and Pakistani officials predicting 1 million refugees will soon burden the turbulent Afghan border region.

“The army is now engaged in a full-scale operation to eliminate the militants, miscreants and anti-state elements from Swat,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief army spokesman.

Pakistan’s army is fighting to wrest Swat and two neighboring districts from militants who dominate the adjoining tribal belt along the Afghan frontier.

The army announced its offensive after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the government would wipe out groups trying to “take Pakistan hostage at gunpoint.”

Meanwhile, the stream of civilians seeking safety appeared to have intensified, leaving Pakistan facing a humanitarian emergency.

On Friday, the U.N. refugee agency said provincial officials had told them 500,000 had fled, were on the move, or were trying to flee. About a half-million have already been made homeless elsewhere in the border region since August 2008, when the army launched its last major anti-Taliban operation in the Bajur border region.

Some in Mingora, Swat’s main town, have accused the Taliban of not allowing them to leave, perhaps because they want to use them as human shields. Others came under attack even as they fled.

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