/ 7 September 2009

Thousands flee new Pakistan anti-militant push

Thousands of civilians have fled a fresh military bombardment against Islamist rebels in northwest Pakistan, officials said on Monday, as dozens of militants were reported dead in the push.

Fighter jets and helicopter gunships began strafing suspected militant hideouts in the fabled Khyber district bordering Afghanistan about a week ago, sparking an exodus of civilians who fear being caught in the crossfire.

”Thousands have fled the military operation in Khyber. Around 30 000 people have arrived in Peshawar since yesterday,” said Sahibzada Mohammad Anis, administrative chief in the northwest capital Peshawar.

Khyber local government chief Tariq Hayat also told AFP that as many as 30 000 civilians had left when a military curfew was relaxed on Sunday.

”More than 30 000 people have arrived in Peshawar so far. More are coming today [Monday] as the curfew was lifted again,” he said.

”Some are living in rented houses, some with their relatives in Peshawar. The government has no plan to set up camps for them because this operation will not last long. It will be over in the next few days.”

United Nations officials put the number of displaced a lot lower.

”UNHCR estimates that 500 to 800 families, mainly women and children, have moved out of Bara in Khyber agency,” said Ariane Rummery, spokeswoman in Islamabad for the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

”The families on the move are seeking refuge with friends and relatives on the outskirts of Peshawar,” Rummery told AFP, adding that the agency had offered to help the government provide for the displaced people.

The military launched an offensive against militant group Lashkar-e-Islam (Army of Islam) in Khyber seven days ago after a suicide bomber blew himself up near a border post with Afghanistan killing 22 Pakistani policemen.

Hayat said the army had by Sunday killed 121 militants in Khyber, while 10 more were reported dead by the paramilitary Frontier Corps on Monday. Such tolls, however, are impossible to independently confirm.

”Security forces killed at least 10 militants and destroyed four hideouts of militants including a training centre in Kula Markaz village of Khyber,” a statement from the paramilitary Frontier Corps said.

Pakistan is already grappling with a huge displacement crisis after nearly two million people fled a punishing military offensive against Taliban insurgents in northwest Swat valley beginning in late April.

The military says it has now cleared that area of insurgents, and about 1,3-million displaced people have returned. But skirmishes continue, raising fears that the Taliban are regrouping in the mountains.

Buoyed by the apparent Swat success against the Taliban, the military has vowed to track down their hardcore leadership in the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border, also a known bolthole for al-Qaeda fighters.

The Lashkar-e-Islam has some ties to the Pakistan Taliban. The Khyber pass is the main land and supply route through Pakistan into Afghanistan, where international forces are also battling a Taliban insurgency.

In other unrest in the northwest on Monday, five soldiers were killed and four others wounded in a roadside bomb and gun fights in Shakai village in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, a security official said. –Sapa-AFP