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Page last updated at 09:57 GMT, Friday, 19 June 2009 10:57 UK

Pakistani offensive 'nears end'

Pakistani troops stand guard on a street in Mingora, the main town in Swat valley, Pakistan on Wednesday June 3, 2009
The fighting in Swat began about two months ago

The military offensive against Taliban militants entrenched in north-western Pakistan is nearly over, the defence minister has said.

Ahmed Mukhtar says people displaced by the fighting in the Swat valley can start returning home from Saturday.

About two million people fled the area as the army took on the militants after they reneged on an earlier peace deal.

The minister said the army would now set its sights on South Waziristan, the stronghold of Pakistan's Taliban chief.

Pakistan's army is in the preparatory stages of a full-scale assault on the mountainous tribal territory bordering Afghanistan.

It is said to be the hiding place of Baitullah Mehsud who is at the helm of Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban group blamed for a string of deadly attacks across Pakistan.

"As soon as Baitullah [Mehsud] is spotted, he will be killed," Mr Mukhtar said in an interview on Pakistan's Dawn News television channel.

The army has advanced north from its base in the town of Wana in South Waziristan towards the hills in the Madijan area.

Witnesses have told the BBC that soldiers are digging trenches and positioning artillery weaponry there.

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says Mr Mukhtar's remarks about the operation in Swat nearing completion must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Pakistan has conducted operations in several parts of the north-west since 2004 - and has declared victory on a number of occasions - but this has never prevented militants from staging a comeback.

The army has also failed to eliminate the militant leadership in Swat, our correspondent says. There have been many questions about the true success of the operation with the fate of top Swat militant leaders still unknown.

Swat displaced

The fighting in the Swat valley began two months ago when Pakistani Taliban forces expanded their operations into districts only 60 miles from the capital.

Pakistani displaced Momin Khan carries her sick mother Bakht Meena, 80, as they arrive in Jalozai refugee camp after fleeing fighting in the Swat valley, Pakistan, Sunday, June 7, 2009

Under the terms of a peace deal, militants were expected to disarm in exchange for the implementation of Sharia law throughout the Malakand division, which includes Swat valley.

As the fighting to dislodge the Taliban intensified, some two million people were displaced. The majority of these are living in overstretched camps on the fringes of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Although the defence minister says the displaced can start to return home from Saturday, the UN says there are still significant concerns about their safety and welfare once they return.

Unrest

Meanwhile, sporadic violence has continued to afflict Pakistan's restive north-west.

Two boys' schools are reported to have been blown up by Taliban militants.

A number of educational institutes in the area, close to the Swat valley, have been targeted in recent months.

The United Nations upgraded its security risk rating in Pakistan to Level 3, which means that expatriate UN officials cannot keep their families in Pakistan.

It comes just one week after deadly attack on Peshawar's Pearl Continental hotel, in which 18 people were killed including two UN members of staff.

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