New reports from Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) suggest as many as 1 million people may have fled their homes to escape fighting between Taliban insurgents and government military forces. The Pakistani military lifted a curfew in the town of Mingora, in the Swat Valley, for 8 hours to allow civilians to evacuate, in advance of what it says will be a total assault against all militant positions there.
The BBC has reported that much of the civilian population was unable to flee, due to lack of adequate means of transport. Many families grouped together to ride on trucks and other large vehicles moving out of Mingora. The military allowed those who were on the roads already to continue their flight, but imposed the curfew again while civilians were still inside the city.
Numerous eyewitness accounts have been broadcast by radio claiming that both the Pakistan military and the Taliban militants have been killing civilians. There are also accounts of the Taliban fighters in Mingora committing atrocities and dumping bodies in the public square to terrorize the population, and that they may be forcing civilians to take up arms or face brutal acts against their families.
It has been reported that one resident of Mingora demanded, when contacted by the AFP news agency: “Please, please, please, do not call me again – they will cut my throat and say that I was spying”. The Times newspaper, of London, reports:
Up to 4,000 Taleban fighters are in control of Mingora, Swat’s main town, and have executed seven people on suspicion of being army informers, leaving their bodies unburied in the main square.
Residents said today that the extremists were digging trenches and planting mines as they prepared for the encircling troops to begin their offensive. Army jets and helicopters buzzed over the valley and strafed Taleban positions, and more troops were parachuted into the war zone.
One BBC reporter speaking from the conflict zone said Pakistan is now a nation at war, and that though there are Afghan and Uzbek partisans among the militants, the fight with the Taliban is mainly a civil war in which Pakistan’s military is fighting Pakistani radicals.
The general in charge of operations in Swat has said this struggle is a fight for the future of the country. He says “cohesive military operations” should be over in 1 month and that by year’s end, most military operations will have transitioned to “policing” operations. Pres. Asif Ali Zardari is seeking international aid to help with the emerging humanitarian crisis.
The military said it has killed more than 800 of the estimated 4,000 militants in the region, but the fighting has triggered an exodus of at least 900,000 people, creating a humanitarian crisis that risks undercutting public support for the offensive.
“Wherever the terrorists are present, they need to be eliminated completely,” said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister of Northwest Frontier Province. Until last month, he was the leading advocate of moves to make peace with the insurgents.
The government has provided no figures regarding human casualties, suspected or confirmed, but refugees fleeing the fighting talk of bodies strewn in the streets and being unable to identify them clearly as soldiers or militants. Some have suggested the military may have a hard time singling out militants, as they tend to dress as and blend in among the civilian population and have a reputation for using non-combatants as human shields.