/ 8 May 2009

Hundreds of thousands flee Pakistan fighting

Pakistani jets screamed over a Taliban-controlled town on Friday and bombed suspected militant positions as hundreds of thousands fled in terror and other trapped residents appealed for a pause in the fighting so they could escape.

About half a million people have either already left the Swat Valley and nearby districts or want to leave but can’t because of the fighting, Pakistani officials and the United Nations say, bringing the number of people likely to be displaced due to anti-militant offensives across Pakistan’s volatile northwest region to one million.

Pakistan has launched at least a dozen operations in the region near the Afghan border in recent years, but most ended inconclusively and after widespread destruction and significant civilian deaths.

The mountainous region remains a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, foreign governments say.

To end one of those protracted offensives, the government signed a peace accord in Swat that provided for Islamic law there. But it began unraveling last month when Swat Taliban fighters moved into Buner, a neighbouring district just 90km from Islamabad.

Following strong United States pressure, the Pakistani government launched its latest offensive, and the prime minister appealed for international assistance for the growing refugee crisis and vowed to defeat the militants.

Asking for Pakistanis to support the government and the army, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani pledged on Thursday night to ”eliminate the elements who have destroyed the peace and calm of the nation and wanted to take Pakistan hostage at gunpoint.”

The military hailed signs of the public’s mood shifting against the Taliban.

”The public have seen their real face,” Army spokesperson Major General Athar Abbas said. ”They realise their agenda goes much beyond Shariah [Islamic] courts. They have a design to expand.”

Still, the pro-Western government will face a stiff task to keep a skeptical nation behind its security forces.

The mayor of Mardan, the main district to the south of the fighting, said about 250 000 people had fled in recent days and that more were on the move. Of those, 4 500 were staying in camps, while the rest were with relatives or rented accommodation, he said.

Pakistani officials have said up to 500 000 are expected to leave.

On Friday, the UN refugee agency said that the provincial government estimates that between 150 000 and 200 000 people have arrived in safer areas of North West Frontier Province in the last few days and another 300 000 are on the move or want to leave but can’t because of the fighting or curfews.

The exodus from Swat and other nearby districts adds to the more than 500 000 already displaced by fighting elsewhere in Pakistan’s volatile border region since August 2008, said Ron Redmond, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in Geneva.

Government forces are fighting in three districts, stretching over about 600 square kilometres, but much of the fighting has been in the Swat Valley’s main city of Mingora, a militant hub that was home to about 360 000 people before the insurgency two years ago.

Abbas said on Friday that 140 militants had been killed in the last 24 hours, adding to about 150 already reported slain. He did give any figures for civilian deaths, but witness and local media say that noncombatants have been killed.

Tens of thousands of people remain trapped in Mingora. Some have said the Taliban are not allowing them to leave, perhaps because they want to use them as ”human shields” and make the army unwilling to use force.

”We want to leave the city, but we cannot go out because of the fighting,” said one resident, Hidayat Ullah. ”We will be killed, our children will be killed, our women will be killed and these Taliban will escape.”

”Kill terrorists, but don’t harm us,” he pleaded. — Sapa-AP