Pakistani families flee Waziristan battle zone

Thousands of families began fleeing a town in a Pakistani tribal region after three days of fierce clashes between pro-Taliban militants and security forces that killed nearly 200 people, witnesses said on Tuesday.

Around 150 militants and 45 soldiers were killed in fighting around Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan tribal region known as an al-Qaeda haunt.

Families streamed out of the town of 50 000 people and outlying villages, making their way on foot, in tractor trailers and cars.

“Eighty to ninety percent of families of Mir Ali have gone. Just one or two people are staying behind in each house to guard their belongings,” Sher Khan, a resident, told Reuters.

“The main bazaar of Mir Ali is sealed by the army. All shops are closed.
We have nothing to eat. That’s why I have sent my family to Bannu,” he said, referring to a town in the North-West Frontier Province at the gateway to the tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

Waziristan is a hotbed of support for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, who fled to the region after US-led forces drove them out of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Militants in neighbouring South Waziristan have been holding about 225 soldiers since the end of August.

Violence has surged in the lawless Waziristan region since militants scrapped a peace deal with authorities in July.

Airpower unleashed

The latest clashes erupted after militants ambushed a military convoy near Mir Ali on Saturday night.

Casualties mounted as the army struck back and pounded militants with helicopter gunships and fighter jets—a rare use of air power by Pakistani forces in the tribal region.

The jets destroyed most houses around Essori, a village near Mir Ali where most of the fighting was concentrated.

“We don’t have any place to live,” said villager Mohammad Anwar. “We have sent our children to other areas because children are scared that the bombing could start again. It’s a very terrifying situation.”

US ally President Pervez Musharraf swept a vote by parliamentarians on Saturday, but he will have to wait until October 17 at least to hear whether the Supreme Court rules whether he was eligible to stand for re-election while still army chief.

Opposition among many Pakistanis, mainly in the conservative north-west, to General Musharraf’s support for US policy in the region has increased, analysts say. - Reuters

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