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    Army helicopters, artillery pound militant positions in Swat

    Islamabad (PTI): Gunship helicopters and artillery on Sunday pounded positions held by militant followers of a pro-Taliban cleric in Pakistan's northwestern Swat valley even as a top US diplomat expressed concern at the upsurge in violence in the area.

    The Pakistan Army, which has massed some 15,000 troops for a planned offensive against militants led by Maulana Fazlullah, targeted militant positions north of Saidu Sharif with artillery guns and mortars.

    The troops also continued their push towards Shangla, a district adjoining Swat that was taken over by the militants last weekend, by consolidating their positions in Rheem Sar Banda, the army said in a statement.

    Cobra and Bell helicopters targeted militant bunkers at Bariam Bridge and Jalkot in Swat. Security Forces also apprehended five suspected militants.

    The army said the militants suffered "many casualties" in today's actions though the exact figures are yet to be confirmed. Five soldiers have died and 15 were injured in the fighting, military spokesman Maj Gen Waheed Arshad said.

    As the fighting raged in Swat, just 160 km away from the national capital, visiting US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said Washington is concerned at the militancy in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and believed it would take Pakistani forces some time to overcome the unrest.

    Pointing out that Pakistan faced "challenges" in the Swat valley, he told a news conference: "It is yet another reason to be concerned about the situation in Pakistan.

    "The situation in Swat is a reminder of the fact that there are issues to deal with regarding violent extremists in this country. The government of Pakistan is undertaking major efforts at the moment to deal with the situation in Swat and I suspect it will be doing so for a while to come," said Negroponte, who visited Islamabad to urge President Pervez Musharraf to end the emergency and take steps to hold free and fair polls.

    Despite losing nearly 150 men in clashes since last week, the militants have over-run the key town of Puran in the Shangla district. Much of the fighting in the past few days has been concentrated round the town of Alpuri, the headquarters of Shangla district.

    The army estimates that there are up to 500 heavily armed militants, including some from Afghanistan and Pakistan's restive tribal areas, in Swat. The rebels are being led by Fazlullah and a core group of about 50 commanders.

    Fazlullah, known as "Mullah Radio" for advocating jehad in illegal radio broadcasts, and his Shaheen Commando Force are fighting for enforcing Shariat or Islamic law in Swat, a scenic valley that till recently was a popular tourist destination.

    Thousands of people have left the region since the fighting erupted last month. Maj Gen Arshad said the army and the local administration have set up camps to provide refuge to people who were forced to leave their homes.


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