ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Armed Taliban insurgents seized control of the main town in Pakistan's Swat valley, sending thousands of residents fleeing in advance of a possible showdown between the Islamic militants and the army that could help decide the future of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
"You may say the city has fallen to the Taliban," school principal Zia-ud-Din Yusufzai told McClatchy by phone, as he followed the advice of Pakistani authorities and fled the valley's main town of Mingora on Tuesday. "Not everyone could leave. Those who stay will be hostage (to the Taliban)."
"Pray for Swat," implored Yusufzai as he drove south with his wife and three children toward safety and an uncertain future.
The Taliban have dominated Swat since February, when the government agreed to establish Islamic courts in exchange for a cease-fire, and last month they sent forces into neighboring Buner, where the government capitulated without a fight.
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After more than a week of heavy public pressure from the Obama administration, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke Monday night that the army would retake the territory.
"The army is going back in as we speak," Holbrooke quoted him as saying on the eve of Zardari's meeting Wednesday with President Barack Obama in Washington.
Despite Zardari's assurance, however, there was no sign Tuesday that a major army operation had begun in Swat, and residents reported that Taliban had mined the roads into Mingora to block any army offensive.
Pakistan's army has proved to be ill equipped and ill-trained, particularly to fight an Islamist insurgency with which many military officers sympathize, but the militants' advance into Swat and Buner poses an unparalleled threat to Zardari's government and to the U.S. battle against al Qaida and the Taliban.
The militants are drawing closer to some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and other military facilities. Swat and Buner also are close to the huge Tarbela dam and to two important highways, one of which is a main supply route for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and the link between Islamabad, the capital, and Peshawar, a city of about 2 million and the capital of the North West Frontier Province.
The fighting in Swat also could ignite Pakistan's tribal area along the Afghan border, which already is mostly in the hands of the al Qaida-linked Taliban. The nightmare scenario is that a civil war in Swat could trigger a sympathetic uprising from Islamic extremist groups in Punjab province, the heart of Pakistan, and in Islamabad.
It isn't clear, however, whether the army can retake Swat, where the Taliban are well supplied and entrenched. Two Pakistani army offensives in the valley have failed in the past 18 months, and any new operation would likely be much larger, with the associated risk of turning more of the population against the army and the government.
Nevertheless, Holbrooke delivered another public pounding to Zardari before Congress on Tuesday.
"We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies," Holbrooke told the House Foreign Affairs committee. "We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's support and involvement."
One factor has turned in favor of a military operation in Swat: a shift in Pakistani public opinion.
Analysts said that the failed peace deal in Swat has demonstrated to the population that the militants aren't interested in a negotiated settlement or in fulfilling their stated demand for Islamic law. They never disarmed and disbanded as required by the accord, instead invading the Buner district last month, and this week, even a hard-line religious group, Sunni Tehreek, held an anti-Taliban march through Islamabad.
"This is the first time that the Pakistani nation has identified that Talibanization is a threat," said Asad Munir, a former head of military intelligence for northwest Pakistan. "If we say that this is 'our war,' then we can win it. (But) If the nation is not behind the army, then the army cannot fight."
Zardari's government may be moving toward a showdown in Swat. It lifted the curfew in Mingora for five hours in the afternoon to allow residents to flee, but provided no help for evacuees.
Those who had private vehicles or could afford public transport abandoned their homes. The provincial government, appealing for emergency assistance, estimated that 500,000 people would leave Swat to become refugees in their own country.
On Monday night, intense firefights between security forces and Taliban had left residents cowering in their homes. According to Shaukat Saleem, a human-rights activist based in Mingora, 21 civilians died after they were caught in the crossfire. Others gave lower figures. There was no official word on the casualties.
"The streets are empty. I haven't seen any security forces today, just the Taliban patrolling in great strength," said Saleem, speaking by phone from Mingora, adding that he'd decided to stay. "I cannot abandon my people."
Some 46 paramilitary soldiers remain surrounded by Taliban at the town's electrical grid station. While the army denied that Mingora was in the hands of the Taliban, a spokesman based in the town, Maj. Nasir Khan, admitted that the militants were present in "outlying areas."
"Our purpose is to eliminate them (the Taliban)," Khan said. "They don't want Islamic Sharia (law). They want to establish their reign of terror."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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