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Pakistani leader worries about public relations war

By Robert Birsel
Reuters / May 15, 2009
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ISLAMABAD - Pakistan will defeat the Taliban militarily but could lose the public relations war if it fails to help the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said yesterday.

The army launched an offensive in the Swat Valley, northwest of Islamabad, last week after the United States accused leaders of the nuclear-armed country of "abdicating" to the militants.

At least 830,000 people have fled their homes, joining more than 500,000 displaced by earlier fighting in the northwest.

Visiting a camp for the displaced, Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said Pakistan needed massive international help to avert a tragedy.

Gilani said the government planned a conference of aid donors but said he also expected the Pakistani people to help.

"Militarily we will win the war but it will be unfortunate if we lose it publicly," Gilani told the National Assembly.

Most political parties and members of the public support the offensive, despite widespread doubts about a close alliance with the United States in its campaign against militancy.

Opposition is likely to grow if many civilians are killed or if the displaced endure undue hardship.

The offensive was launched when President Asif Ali Zardari was in Washington assuring the United States his government was not about to collapse and is committed to fighting militants.

Pakistani action against militants in its northwest is vital for US efforts to defeat Al Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan.