Pakistan fighting sparks exodus

Al Jazeera, May 9, 2009

Appeal for funds to shelter the displaced
have been issued by aid agencies [Reuters]

Pakistan is preparing for a humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of people flee fighting between the Taliban and government troops in the country’s northwest.

Helicopter gunships blasted Taliban positions in the Swat valley on Saturday, as frequent curfews prevented residents from joining those who have already fled.

Sohail Rahman, Al Jazeera’s correspondent reporting from Islamabad, said local residents faced heavy odds in fleeing the fighting,

“Its very difficult because as soon as sporadic fighting occurs between the military and the Taliban then the curfew – unannounced – gets reimposed in that area.”

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Pakistani officials say that about half a million people have been displaced in the last few days since the Pakistani government launched a major offensive against the Taliban.

Another 500,000 people had reportedly been displaced by sustained violence in the region over the last few months, bringing the total number of displaced people to a million.

Aid appeal

Antonia Paradela, a spokeswoman for Unicef, the UN children’s rights organisation, said aid agencies would need more funding to cope with the influx of refugees.

In video

Swat fighting threatens Pakistan army unity
Behind Buner’s frontlines

“We need urgently more funds – for example Unicef needs at least $10m to continue helping the previous group of displaced families, which is more than half a million people. We’re talking now more than 200,000 – and more [are] on the move,” she told Al Jazeera.

The fighting has prompted the abandonment of a peace deal, agreed in February, between the government and the Taliban.

The pact, brokered by a local religious leader, allowed for the enforcement of the Taliban’s strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, across Malakand division – which includes Swat valley – in return for peace.

In depth

Video: Obama says Pakistan is toughest US challenge
Video: Turning to the Taliban
Video: Thousands flee Pakistan Taliban clashes
Q&A: The struggle for Swat
Talking to the Taliban
Pakistan’s war

The deal had been criticised both at home and abroad and  its critics, especially in the US, have welcomed the government’s offensive.During a visit to Washington, Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, pledged an all-out war against the Taliban fighters.

“This is an offensive – this is war. If they kill our soldiers, then we do the same,” Zardari told America’s PBS public television.

Zardari was in Washington for talks with Barack Obama, the US president, and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.

For his part, Obama pledged a “lasting commitment” to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the US is itself fighting Taliban forces.

‘On the run’

Up to 15,000 members of the security forces have been deployed in Swat, located in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The military says it has killed scores of fighters and claims to be beating back the Taliban.

“They are on the run,” the army said in a statement on Saturday, without making clear exactly how much progress it had made in driving fighters from their positions.

People fleeing the area have also accused the military of killing civilians in its bombardment of the area.

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