ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani army said Friday that it had launched "full-scale" operations to wrest back control of Swat valley from Taliban extremists, a dramatic move that if carried through will severely test the military's ability to run a counterinsurgency operation and the government's ability to handle a flood of internal refugees.
The army said it killed 143 militants within the first 24 hours of the operation and lost seven Pakistani soldiers. The fighting also unleashed a flood of civilians from the Swat area, and the United Nations warned that some 500,000 had evacuated or were on the move.
"On the directive of the government, the army is now engaged in a full-scale operation to eliminate the militants," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman. He asserted that the Taliban "are on the run" but simultaneously are trying to block the exodus of civilians from the area.
He said that 12,000 to 15,000 troops would be involved in the offensive, drawn from the regular army rather than the less well-equipped paramilitary Frontier Corps, which often is used for counterinsurgency along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Troops had been moved in from other areas, he said, though he didn't specify them.
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Fighter jets and helicopter gunships were in the air Friday, and mortars and gunfire reverberated around the scenic Swat valley. The army said it was targeting training camps and arms dumps.
A senior U.S. defense official, however, told McClatchy that Pakistan had yet to deploy regular army troops in Swat but that this could change in the coming days. The official asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.
The battle for Swat, which lies just 100 miles north of Islamabad, isn't a contest over just one valley, but a war for control of nuclear-armed Pakistan between a democratic government allied with Washington and Islamic militants who appear determined to impose their brutal rule on the country and beyond.
Pakistan launched the offensive after intense pressure from the U.S. government and charges by top American officials that Pakistan was "abdicating" to the Taliban and its al Qaida allies, who seek to establish an Islamist state in Swat.
If the offensive measures up to the Pakistani government's and army's rhetoric, it could become Pakistan's biggest counterinsurgency operation since it said it was joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Military analysts cautioned that the Pakistani Taliban have defeated the country's army in almost every confrontation since the military first charged into the semiautonomous tribal belt along the Afghan border in 2004 in support of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. The military pursued many of those operations fitfully and made a series of peace deals that left the extremists in charge.
"America has successfully moved the war from west of the Durand Line (the border with Afghanistan) into Pakistan," said Farrukh Saleem, the executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, a research center in Islamabad. "The focus is Pakistan now, not Afghanistan."
The army long has wanted the government to take "ownership" of its anti-militant operations, and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's television address late Thursday gave the military the political backing it sought.
Abbas acknowledged, though, that Swat's mountainous terrain is perfect for the guerrillas, and he estimated their number at 4,000. He said the scale of the operation was greater than two previous attempts to defeat the Swat Taliban since late 2007, which ended in dismal failure.
It's unknown how many civilians remain in Swat, but as many as 500,000 could be trapped in the crossfire. The militants have laid mines and improvised bombs along the streets and set up roadblocks, allowing them to use the population as a shield.
"Since now it (the operation) has started, and the situation is fluid, in nobody's control at the moment, it's difficult to organize an exodus," Abbas said.
Those who manage to escape Swat still face misery, as no preparations have been made to accommodate them, and the sheer number of refugees is likely to overwhelm the resources of the government and aid organizations.
By Friday afternoon, the U.N. had registered 102,141 people newly displaced by the fighting in Swat and the neighboring districts of Dir and Buner. The expected 500,000 internal refugees from these operations will add to those who fled previous offensives, meaning that more than 1 million Pakistanis will be left homeless from the anti-Taliban drive.
While Swat and Buner are the farthest that the insurgents have moved into Pakistan, their base remains the tribal territory, especially South Waziristan, where no military operation is under way. If Pakistan decides to move against the extremists ranged across the tribal area, who harbor Afghan insurgents and cross the border themselves to fight, the country would face a colossal enemy.
"Pakistan has not been able to make a coherent strategy, right from the beginning, to combat terrorism and insurgency," said Hasham Baber, a senior member of the Awami National Party, which runs the government in the North West Frontier Province.
"In South Waziristan, an Islamic sultanate has been established. We are highlighting Swat, but behind Swat, whatever is happening in South Waziristan is much more important, much more dangerous, not only for Pakistan but for the whole region."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
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