updated 2/1/2009 11:37:52 AM ET 2009-02-01T16:37:52

At least 16 suspected militants and one soldier were killed in clashes in northwestern Pakistan's Swat Valley, the military said Sunday as it escalated its offensive against insurgents in the one-time tourist haven.

Swat lies outside the tribal regions along the Afghan border where the Taliban and al-Qaida have traditionally had their strongholds. Residents say militants now control most of the valley, despite an army operation that began more than a year ago.

The military recently vowed to reinvigorate its efforts in Swat, where Taliban fighters have set up their own courts, destroyed scores of girls' schools and reportedly driven out hundreds of thousands of residents.

The latest clashes broke out in several parts of the valley over 24 hours, according to a military statement that detailed the casualties. It said troops "consolidated their hold" over Charbagh, an area considered a militant stronghold.

Police constable fatally shot
Separately, militants fatally shot a police constable they had abducted in Rahimabad, a city in the Swat Valley, the statement said.

Swat's police forces have been decimated by desertions and militant killings over the past 18 months, underscoring the power vacuum in a region that — unlike the tribal areas — is supposed to be under full government control.

Swat is less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and there are fears that the militancy could spread beyond the valley to other parts of the country.

The picturesque region that once attracted legions of tourists is now losing population. Some lawmakers say up to a third of the 1.5 million people living in Swat have left, with many going to stay with relatives elsewhere in the country.

Wajid Ali Khan, a provincial minister, said the government set up a relief camp a few days ago in the Birkot area, not far from Swat's main city of Mingora, to help those who have fled other parts of the valley.

"We are facing a very dangerous situation," he said. "The fighting in the valley has made almost impossible for civilians to stay there anymore. Hundreds of families are leaving their homes. Some of them have places to go, and others simply do not."

Blast injures at least 10
Meanwhile in Pakistan's southwest, a bomb rigged to a motorcycle exploded in a market, wounding at least 10 people, police said.

The blast occurred Sunday evening in Dera Murad Jamali district, about 220 miles (350 kilometers) east of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, police official Shahid Durrani said.

A person claiming to be a spokesman for the Baluch Republican Army said the group was behind the blast.

"Paramilitary forces have unlawfully caught our men. Some of the force officers have launched a smearing campaign against our leaders. This is our response," Sarbaz Baluch said in a telephone call to the AP.

The Baluch Republican Army and other nationalist groups are involved in a low-level insurgency seeking greater provincial autonomy and a larger share of revenue from the region's natural resources.

Police also reported a grenade attack in Baluchistan's Khuzdar district which killed one person and wounded five others.

The attackers — two motorcyclists — lobbed a hand grenade at a police patrol Saturday night but hit bystanders instead, police official Ghulam Ali Lashari said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for that attack.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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