ISLAMABAD - Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani civilians trapped by an offensive against the Taliban in Swat face catastrophe, a rights group said on Tuesday, as fighting flared in another militant-plagued region.
The offensive in the Taliban bastion of Swat, about 120 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, is the military's most concerted effort to roll back a spreading Taliban insurgency that has thrown the nuclear-armed country's future into question.
The offensive has sparked an exodus of 2.3 million people, according to provincial government figures, but about 200,000 people are believed to be still in the valley.
Severe shortages of food, water and medicine are creating a major humanitarian crisis for the trapped civilians, the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch said.
"People trapped in the Swat conflict zone face a humanitarian catastrophe unless the Pakistani military immediately lifts a curfew that has been in place continuously for the last week," Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, said in a statement.
The army launched the offensive this month after the militants, emboldened by a controversial peace deal in Swat, pushed out of the former tourist valley into neighboring districts, including one just 100 km (60 miles) from Islamabad.
The United States needs Pakistani action against militants in its northwest to defeat al Qaeda and disrupt support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. It had criticized the pact as tantamount to "abdicating" to the militants as thousands of extra U.S. troops are arriving in Afghanistan.
General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, who arrived in Islamabad on Tuesday, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an interview he welcomed Pakistan's willingness to "very aggressively prosecute the campaign."
"It bodes much better for Pakistan," he said.
But the flight of so many civilians poses a major burden for an economy being kept afloat by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan and could undercut public backing for the military action.
Human Rights Watch said the government should take all possible measures including air drops to alleviate suffering and both sides should allow a humanitarian corridor through which civilians could escape and aid groups could help.
The United Nations was considering asking for a "humanitarian pause" to get aid in, a U.N. official said on Monday.
But military spokesmen Major-General Athar Abbas said that would not be possible, although he added that supplies were getting through to civilians as the army cleared more areas.
"Lifting the curfew would mean letting the operational situation slip out of hand," Abbas said, adding civilian casualties had been "minimal."
More than half of Swat's main town of Mingora had been cleared and trucks with provisions were arriving there, he said.
Twenty-nine militants had been killed in the previous 24 hours, Abbas told a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, while six soldiers had also been killed. Fierce fighting had been going on in some areas and the militants' morale was low.
"They're in disarray and finding ways to sneak out," he said.
In the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, army helicopter gunships attacked Taliban positions, killing six militants, intelligence officials and residents said.
Speculation has been mounting that the army would soon turn its attention to South Waziristan, the headquarters of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and a major base area for his Afghan Taliban allies battling Western forces in Afghanistan.
South Waziristan has been a militant hub for years and the United States and Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government have long pressed Pakistan to root out militants from border strongholds.
Tension has been building since President Asif Ali Zardari told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper last week ago that the military would move into Waziristan after clearing Swat.
Although he was reported to have later denied that, military officials say an offensive in South Waziristan looks inevitable. With tension rising, about 10,000 people have fled from South Waziristan in recent days, a senior government official said.
The violence has worried stock market investors. The main index ended a marginal 0.05 percent up at 7,176.89 points.
But dealers said stocks should get a boost on Wednesday after the Supreme Court ruled after the close that popular former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his politician brother can contest elections, removing a cause of political uncertainty.
(Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani, Zeeshan Haider, Augustine Anthony and Kamran Haider; Editing by Paul Tait)