Thousands flee NW Pakistan fighting, 19 dead

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MINGORA, Pakistan, Nov 20 (Reuters) Thousands of people have fled a valley in northwest Pakistan as security forces step up an offensive against pro-Taliban militants, witnesses and officials said today, as fighting killed at least 19 people.

Advancing ground troops killed 15 militants in the Shangladistrict in the scenic Swat valley, the site of fierce clashes with insurgents led by hardline Islamist cleric Maulana Fazlullah in recent weeks in which around 300 people have died.

Four civilians were killed when a mortar bomb hit their residence as security forces pounded militant positions in the same district, witnesses said. The military has moved 15,000 troops to the area for the offensive.

''In Shangla we are using ground troops, and (elsewhere) in Swat we are using artillery and helicopter gunships,'' said military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad.

He said up to 30 militants were killed in fighting in Swat yesterday.

Fighting flared between troops and fighters of pro-Taliban cleric Fazlullah, who is leading a campaign to enforce a strict Islamic code in the area, in October.

Militants have infiltrated from strongholds on the Afghan border to support Fazlullah in recent weeks, while the country's focus has been on President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule and suspension of the constitution in an apparent bid to hold onto power.

The army launched a fresh push last week to wipe out militant positions after police failed to prevent a build-up in the valley in North West Frontier Province.

The military says militants are using civilian premises to launch attacks on security forces.

Witnesses said residents were leaving the area in large numbers after security forces broadcast warnings by loudspeaker.

''We have no option but to leave our home,'' said Ali Ravi, who lost three members of his family on Sunday night when a mortar bomb hit his residence in Tottvandi village in Kabal.

Swat, close to Pakistan's lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, has seen a surge in militant activity since Fazlullah launched an illegal radio station and urged a holy war after an army assault on a militant mosque in Islamabad in July.

Northwest Pakistan has also seen a upswing in sectarian violence, with more than 100 people killed in fighting between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim tribesmen in the Kurram tribal region near the Afghan border over the past week.

Sectarian violence has bedevilled Pakistan since the 1980s and Kurram has a long history of such clashes.

REUTERS PD RK1935

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