SCOTT SIMON, host:
We're joined now from the other side of the border by NPR's Julie McCarthy. She is in Islamabad.
Julie, thanks very much for being with us.
JULIE MCCARTHY: Thank you.
SIMON: The fighting continues in the Swat Valley between the Taliban and Pakistani forces. What's the latest, as you can learn it there in the capital?
MCCARTHY: Well, the army claims to be consolidating positions in this offensive against the Taliban extremists, in an attempt to counter doubts about the effectiveness of the campaign that's now in Week Four, 27 days old. The army took journalists to a mountaintop they said they had captured.
The military strategy has been to try to clear strongholds of the Taliban and encircle them in the heart of Swat Valley, which is the city of Mingora, which the militants control. The army said today it has entered the city. Televised images from helicopters show a deserted town, boarded up, and whoever is left is at the mercy of the militants, who residents report are using as human shields. But there are reports of the Taliban fleeing in small groups from Swat and leaving other areas of the fighting.
SIMON: Any estimation from Pakistani army officials on how long, deep an operation they expect this to be?
MCCARTHY: Well, you know, they claim to have killed some 1,000 militants, a number that's impossible to verify. But victory, though, over this insurgency that's well-armed, well-entrenched, isn't likely to be over quickly. The reprisals, which have worried the general public, already appear to be happening.
Last night in Peshawar, in an entertainment district - it was described as the CD and cinema center of the city - was hit by a remote-controlled car bomb that totally destroyed a theater with patrons inside.
This is literally the war for control of Pakistan's culture. Taliban extremists ordered cinema owners to shut down, stop showing films that the extremists labeled un-Islamic. And it's part of the extremist's philosophy that's sweeping over Swat.
SIMON: And Julie, please tell us what you can learn about the exodus of civilians from the area, because of course it's been enormous.
MCCARTHY: That's right. Well over a million and half people have been on the march. This is a traumatized population, Scott. The women tell harrowing tales of near-death experiences as they grabbed their children to make a mad dash for safety. The valley began to empty out in a matter of days, and starvation is now a worry for those people who have been left behind. They're stranded there. The routes are cut. Their curfews are imposed. Nothing is moving in.
Residents say civilians are falling alongside the militants in army raids against the extremists. But the Pakistani army, like the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, says it takes pains to avoid civilian areas and that it concentrates bombardment on isolated hideouts of the militants.
Now, Swat is considered to be too dangerous for journalists to enter, so much of the information on the battle comes from the military. You have contradictory accounts. The truth is elusive here.
SIMON: Can you tell anything about conditions in the camps, whether aid is reaching the people who are now there?
MCCARTHY: Yeah, aid is coming in, but there are fears of rising outbreaks of disease in the camps, because there are so many people there. They're overcrowded. They're understaffed. They're housing thousands of families. Diarrhea is now sweeping through a camp I was in. Dehydration is an acute problem. The people of Swat Valley, they're used to this cool mountain climate and they're now subjected to very intense heat; there's no fans, there's no way to cool down, there's very little potable water.
And then there's their mental health, especially the children. You know, they've witnessed atrocities - beheadings by the Taliban and bombings and strafing by the Air Force.
SIMON: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Islamabad. Thank you.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.
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