30,000 Flee Army Raid on NW Pakistan: Local Official

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Around 30,000 people in northwest Pakistan have been displaced by a military offensive to flush out Taliban militants, a provincial minister said Tuesday.

[Pashtun women in burqa await a ride while sitting inside a refugee camp in the outskirts of Peshawar, located in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, April 26, 2009. (REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)]Pashtun women in burqa await a ride while sitting inside a refugee camp in the outskirts of Peshawar, located in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, April 26, 2009. (REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)

“Up to 30,000 people have left Maidan in Lower Dir district over the past few days,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister in the government of North West Frontier Province, told a news conference.”We are making arrangements for them in Peshawar, Nowshera and Timargarah districts.”

Residents said thousands of terrified people, mostly women and children, left the area with their belongings after Pakistan troops and helicopter gunships launched the operation over the weekend.

One local charity said it had registered 2,241 displaced families so far.

Around 50 insurgents were killed in the operation in Lower Dir, near the Taliban-held Swat valley, officials said.

The military said eight paramilitary soldiers had also been killed since it launched Operation Black Thunder Sunday.

Heavy shelling by the paramilitary Frontier Corps continued in the Maidan area of Lower Dir overnight, a senior military officer said Tuesday.

“We destroyed several militants hideouts in heavy artillery shelling of suspected bases in the area,” the officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In an earlier statement the military said Lal Qila, a Taliban stronghold in Lower Dir, “has been fully secured after the successful operation.”

“Search and cordon operations are continuing in the area to flush out militants,” it added.

“The military had to retaliate after militants blocked roads, attacked convoys and killed some government officials,” the minister said.

The Pakistan government in February agreed to allow the Islamic justice system of sharia to be imposed in Swat valley and its surrounding districts in the Malakand region, which have been troubled by two years of rebellion.

But the agreement was followed by further militant encroachments, and the government has been in talks with the militants to try to restore peace there.

The Taliban suspended peace talks with the government Monday after the military launched Operation Black Thunder following intense US pressure to stop the extremists’ advance.

“My uncle was working in the fields when he was wounded in helicopter shelling,” Hayat Khan 36, one of those who fled the fighting, told AFP.

“I came to Timargarah with my wife, children and a sister whose husband lives in Dubai. I cannot see them dying there,” Khan said, adding that his uncle had been admitted to a hospital in Timargarah.

“I saw helicopters targeting hills in Maidan yesterday,” said 40-year old Omar Zeb, who arrived in Timargarah with 16 other relatives including brother, nephews and nieces.

“There was intense artillery shelling last night, my children were scared, none of us could sleep the whole night. We left at dawn, fearing the fighting would escalate.”

Information minister Hussain said the government remained “determined to fully implement the deal but some outsiders who do not want peace have infiltrated in Buner and Dir districts to sabotage the accord.”

He invited Soofi Mohammad, leader of a sharia movement in the area, to resume talks to avoid any delay in the implementation of the deal.

Taliban spokesman Amir Izzat Khan said the operation in Lower Dir could endanger the peace deal.

“There can be a reaction to the government action,” he told AFP.

However, President Asif Ali Zardari said Monday the peace deal with the Taliban remained valid until the North West Frontier Province government told him otherwise.

“There will be a reassessment of the situation by the provincial government and if needed we’ll come back to parliament and the parliament will decide,” he said in an interview with foreign journalists.

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