Pakistan launched air and ground attacks against up to 7,000 Taliban militants entrenched in a northwestern valley Wednesday, killing dozens holed up at emerald mines and on forested hillsides following urgent U.S. demands to step up the fight against the insurgents.
With militants fighting back and weary refugees lining up at camps, the operation will be a test of whether the army has the will, capability and political support to defeat an enemy that had three months under a now-shattered peace deal to rest and regroup.
"It is an all-out war there. Rockets are landing everywhere," said Laiq Zada, 33, who fled the Swat Valley and is living in a government-run tent camp out of the danger zone. "We have with us the clothes on our bodies and a hope in the house of God. Nothing else."
Washington has said it wants to see a sustained operation in Swat and surrounding districts, mindful of earlier, inconclusive offensives elsewhere in the Afghan border region. Eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the area remains a haven for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters blamed for spiraling violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Uprooting the insurgents from the valley will mean unpopular civilian casualties, property damage and massive disruption to public life. That combination could tear at the resolve of government, which is struggling to convince the nuclear-armed Muslim nation that fighting the militants is in its interests as well as those of the U.S.
But there have been signs recently of a shift in the national mood against the Taliban after it got most of the blame for the collapsed peace process in Swat. A series of bloody terrorist attacks in the country's heartland province, Punjab, and the wide broadcast last month of a video clip showing the insurgents beating a women in Swat, also appear to have hardened the stance of politicians, clerics and ordinary Pakistanis toward extremists.
"Finally, it seems the authorities have realized the intensity of the threat and the mortality of danger," said Ishtiaq Ahmad, professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. "That is why we can expect the military to be a little more courageous and resolute this time."
Wednesday's clashes followed the collapse of a three-month-old truce in Swat that saw the government impose Islamic law. It was widely criticized in the West as a surrender to the militants, who had fought the army to a standstill in two years of clashes that saw hundreds of civilian casualties.
The fighting came hours ahead of meetings between President Barack Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington to explore ways to boost the country's anti-terror fight, seen by many as the most pressing foreign policy issue facing the administration.
"Pakistan's democracy will deliver," Zardari said in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the military offensive against the Taliban was a positive sign.
"I'm actually quite impressed by the actions the Pakistani government is now taking," she said. "I think that action was called for and action has been forthcoming."
Swat is seen as an especially significant battleground. Rather than a remote badlands along the Afghan border, it is only 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and is a relatively wealthy former tourist resort famed for its striking mountain views.
The accord there began unraveling last month when Taliban fighters moved from the valley into the nearby district of Buner, even closer to Islamabad, prompting a military operation that the military says has killed more than 150 militants. It is unclear how many remain in that district, but the army says the operation is "progressing smoothly."
The militants, who never laid down their weapons, resumed armed patrols in the main town of Mingora on Sunday and occupied public buildings, attacked security forces and blew up police stations, effectively ending the deal, according to officials and witnesses.
Sustained fighting broke out Tuesday, triggering a mass exodus from the town. Up to 40,000 people have fled the region, according to officials, who have warned that 500,000 could leave. Half a million out of a peacetime population of 1.5 million already fled two earlier army offensives and a Taliban reign of terror.
The United Nations said it was preparing six camps, but that most of those who had fled were living with relatives.
Witnesses said Mingora's streets were largely deserted, with people too scared to leave their homes, as helicopters and mortar crews pounded militant positions in the town and outlying districts.
The military said about 35 militants positioned near emerald mines and in hillside bases above the town were killed, the most reported casualties there since fighting resumed. It reported another 50 enemy fighters killed in Buner in artillery strikes and clashes.
The Swat militants had moved down from the hills into Mingora and were occupying public buildings, robbing banks and planting bombs to hinder any army advance, according to a statement. Four soldiers were killed in a bomb attack and an assault on a power plant, it said.
The militant casualty figures could not be verified independently, and there was no official word on deaths or injuries among civilians.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas declined to say whether the events heralded the start of major, sustained offensive, adding only that "all the contingency plans are worked out" for carrying one out.
An Associated Press reporter saw a long column of army trucks carrying heavy artillery pieces on the main highway that leads to the northwest late Wednesday. However, it was not clear whether the army was planning to send significant reinforcements to the valley.
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 troops who until recent days had been confined to their barracks under the peace deal.
The military has fought about a dozen operations in the border region since 9/11, killing scores of militants and sustaining more than 1,500 casualties, something it says proves it is serious about cracking down on the insurgency.
But many have doubts about its commitment, chiefly because it previously cultivated ties to militants to use as proxy fighters in Afghanistan and Kashmir, a territory disputed with rival India.