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Pakistan's refugee crisis could deepen

By unknown | Jun 09, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

DERA ISMAIL KHAN - Ashif Mehshif shut his shop in his home town in Pakistan's tribal belt two weeks ago and moved to this river city with 20 relatives, a small group among thousands fleeing what they fear is the next big military offensive against theTaliban.

DERA ISMAIL KHAN - Ashif Mehshif shut his shop in his home town in Pakistan's tribal belt two weeks ago and moved to this river city with 20 relatives, a small group among thousands fleeing what they fear is the next big military offensive against theTaliban.

"All of our town has been quit by the local residents," said Mehsud, who ran a phone service.

"Only Taliban and the security forces are seen there. I had to leave because there was no business."

Already grappling with refugees, Pakistan is facing a second exodus from north and south Waziristan, strongholds for hardcore al-Qaeda and Taliban militants that the US and others believe must be routed to win the war in Afghanistan and end extremism in Pakistan.

There are no official numbers of refugees flooding into Dera Ismail Khan, Tank and other regional population centres, with relatives and friends absorbing the influx.

One local government official told Associated Press on condition of anonymity that by the end of May about 47000 refugees had fled south Waziristan.

Tribal leader Faateh Khan said more than 100000 people from his Bitani clan alone had left and said the government should provide them with aid.

No plans have been announced for opening a new front in the tribal districts, where state troops would face heavily-armed militants dug into the mountains along the border.

But analysts say the military gains and positive public response to the Swat campaign may embolden the military and the civilian government to extend their fight into the tribal areas.

Pakistan has in the past used militants in the tribal region to press its strategic interests in Afghanistan, including backing the hardline Taliban regime before al-Qaeda's 2001 attacks in the US.

Shaun Gregory, a Pakistan expert at Britain's Bradford University, said Pakistan's army still sees the Taliban in the tribal areas as a potential instrument to influence the Afghan government and reverse traditional rival India's influence there.

For now, Pakistan's government is talking tough about facing up to the militants, but is giving no specifics. "Wherever there is a threat, we shall follow," President Asi Ali Zardari said recently.

Major-general Athar Abbas conceded that clashes had intensified in south Waziristan recently but said it was because the military was responding more, and not because a new offensive was starting.

He said the militants were escalating attacks in south Waziristan to divert attention from operations in Swat.

The US strongly supports the Swat offensive and is pumping more than R2415million into caring for some 3 million people in Pakistan's northwest who have been uprooted by thefighting.

Any large-scale offensive in the tribal belt would need collaboration with US troops in Afghanistan who could cut the Taliban off if they tried to cross the porous border.

US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke held talks with senior government leaders in Islamabad last week, and said afterwards he was "comfortable" that Pakistan was serious about the problem of militants in the tribal areas.

Security has been fraught for years in the semi-autonomous, heavily-armed tribal region, where blood feuds are common and the central government has only limited control.

Top leaders of al-Qaeda and Afghanistan's former Taliban regime are believed to have established strongholds there after fleeing the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Violence between militants and security forces has risen sharply in recent weeks, including a June 5 bombing in south Waziristan that killed four soldiers, and clashes a week earlier that killed dozens of insurgents and seven soldiers.

Residents say the fighting looks like the start of a full-scale assault. And fuelling the fears are the Taliban's warnings that they should get out.

"The army is hitting Taliban with bombs and Taliban are taking counter action," said Khalil Mehsud, who fled Spinkai Raghzai town for Tank with his family.

Kashif Mehsud, the phone service businessman, is searching for a house to rent in Dera Ismail Khan but prices have skyrocketed because of the influx.

Cash-strapped Pakistan is poorly prepared to resettle the Swat refugees - a task Holbrooke said was "the real test" of the offensive's success - and another mass migration in south Waziristan could stretch the country's capacity beyond the breaking point.

Retired Pakistani general Talat Masood said the government seemed to have finally committed to taking on militants and the military now thought defeating them is a matter of credibility.

"It has to happen," Masood said of an offensive in the tribal areas. But he warned of the dangers of troops being caught in the mountain region's harsh winter.

For now, many of those who have fled in anticipation of an offensive are sweltering in borrowed lodgings.

Yarullah Mehsud left Sararogha town and is crammed into one sweltering room with his wife and eight children at a relative's home in Tank.

"It's the government's responsibility. Either it should stop the operation or it should provide us reasonable shelter," he said. - Sapa-AP


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