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Soldiers stand guard on top of a mountain overlooking the Swat valley at Banai Baba Ziarat area.—AFP
KHWAZAKHELA Troops are encircling Taliban militants in their mountain base as well as the main town in the Swat Valley, a Pakistani general said on Friday.

With scepticism growing about the progress of the month-old army offensive in the north-western region, the army flew a handful of reporters from foreign news organisations into Swat on Friday.

An Associated Press reporter aboard the helicopter saw no cars and few people in the town of Mingora or on roads further up the valley.

From the air, there was little evidence of the fierce fighting and air strikes that the military claims have already killed more than 1,000 militants as well as some 60 soldiers.

But a senior commander insisted the army was trapping militants in Mingora and Peochar, a side-valley further north that is the stronghold of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah.

'The noose is tightening around them. Their routes of escape have been cut off,' Maj. Gen. Sajad Ghani said.

'It's just a question of time before (Taliban leaders) are eliminated.'

Meanwhile, the head of the government relief operation, Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed, said up to 200,000 civilians were stranded in the valley and authorities might have to drop food to them from the air.

But Ahmed said 'not many' civilians were left in Mingora, with most people still in the valley in its northern reaches, which had been 'relatively calm'.

In a sign of growing hostility towards the Taliban among people long ambivalent, villagers in two north-western districts are trying to expel the gunmen, a politician and another official said.

'The people of Kalam have risen against the Taliban. The people have asked them to get out,' said provincial assembly member Jafar Shah, referring to a region to the north of Swat.

A clashed had erupted on Thursday and several people on both sides were wounded or killed, he said.

'The residents are insisting they won't let the Taliban stay. The militants have been confined to a small area,' Shah said.

Villagers had taken the same stand in parts of Lower Dir, to the west of Swat, and Taliban had pulled out of some areas, a provincial government official said.

In Swat, soldiers advancing from three directions have begun battling the militants in towns where civilians are still hiding.