Pakistanis flee offensive, Swat valley curfew eased

Pakistan’s military ordered people out of parts of the Swat valley on Sunday, temporarily relaxing a curfew to enable civilians to flee an intensifying offensive against Taliban militants.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan hopes to stop a growing Taliban insurgency with its offensive in the former tourist valley 130km from Islamabad after US criticism that the government was failing to act against the Islamist militants.

Nearly 200 militants have been killed in the fighting in recent days, according to the military. The figure could not be independently confirmed.

Hundreds of thousands of people have left Swat in the past week and in all about 500 000 are expected to get out. They join 555 000 people displaced earlier from Swat and other areas because of fighting since August.

“We have ordered the civilian population in four districts to vacate the areas,” said Nasir Khan, a military spokesperson in the region.
“They have seven hours to leave because we have to strike militant hideouts there,” he said.

The army went on a full-scale offensive on Thursday after the government ordered troops to flush out militants from the Taliban stronghold.

Fighting had picked up in previous days, triggering a civilian exodus but concern has been growing about the fate of those still trapped and unable to move because of the curfew.

The lifting of the curfew for seven hours on Sunday triggered a new flood, although residents said transport was hard to come by as the military was not letting vehicles into the valley.

“Everybody wants to get out of this hell,” Zubair Khan, a resident of Mingora, the valley’s main town, said by telephone.

“Some are driving out while many are just on foot. They don’t know where they’re heading but staying here just means death.”

Helicopters and warplanes targeted militant hideouts in Mingora and other areas in Swat on Sunday, the military’s Nasir Khan said, adding he had no information about casualties.

“It’s a tough battle. They’re operating in small groups. They don’t fight a pitched battle but we’re closing in on them, squeezing them and have cut their supply lines,” he said.

Nasir Khan said vehicles had been stopped coming in to the valley because the military feared the militants might try to send in reinforcements.

Vehicle operators were demanding ever higher fares to take people out, residents said.

“There are few vehicles and drivers are asking higher fares,” said teacher Mohammad Shahnawaz said. “How can I take my kids, wife and old mother to a safer place? Nobody thinks of humanity, money is their religion.”

Many of the displaced stay with relatives or friends or rent places to stay, but aid agencies and officials fear if the situation is protracted they will join tens of thousands in camps, further straining resources.

The World Vision aid group said conditions in camps were “intolerable” despite the coordinated efforts of the Pakistani authorities and aid agencies.

“We may not be able to meet the most basic needs of the refugees as quickly as they are arriving in the camps if it continues at this pace,” Jeff Hall, a deputy director for World Vision, said in a statement.

Separately, security forces killed 24 Taliban insurgents in a clash in the Mohmand region on the Afghan border on Saturday night after militants attacked a paramilitary camp, a paramilitary force official said. - Reuters

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