A human tide of up to 500,000 people could pour out of Pakistan’s troubled Swat valley after officials told residents to flee as a controversial peace deal with the Taliban appeared finally to fall apart.
As clashes intensified between government troops and Taliban fighters - effectively marking an end to the three-month ceasefire - officials told residents in Swat’s main town, Mingora, that they should leave. Last night, thousands were said to be on the move, adding to countless others who have already been forced from their homes in north-west Pakistan in recent weeks. The development comes as Barack Obama is tomorrow due to meet with leaders Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai to discuss America’s new "Af-Pak" policy.
With so many people fleeing their homes, aid organisations said they were scrambling to set up extra camps for the anticipated flood. The government also said it was rushing to provide facilities ahead of what might be a new military operation in Mingora.
"Naturally, we are very concerned about these displaced people," said Ariane Rummery, an Islamabad-based spokeswoman for UNHCR. "Already we have been looking after 550,000 people who have been forced from their homes by conflict since last August. Last week another 20,000 people came out of Buner and Lower Dir."
Bewildered and frightened residents are leaving because of the threat from both the Taliban and because of the military operation to drive the militants from several locations little more than 60 miles from Islamabad that was launched last week. The military operation underlined growing concern within Pakistan about the increasing spread of the Taliban and of the failure of February’s ceasefire to bring stability.
The deal in Swat, combining as it did an agreement to enact Sharia law in the valley in exchange for a ceasefire, was controversial from the start, both in Pakistan and internationally. Many believed it was only a matter of time before the Taliban rescinded on their undertakings. That moment appeared to come last month when, encouraged by their success in Swat and by the fact they had not been forced to lay down their arms as the deal stipulated, they swept into the neighbouring district of Buner.
Under considerable international pressure and with the meeting with Mr Obama looming, Mr Zadari and the Pakistani military launched what they described as a major offensive to drive the Taliban from Buner. The military said dozens of fighters had been killed, though it has been impossible to verify such claims.
What is easier to measure is the surge of displaced people fleeing from the fighting - a surge that is likely to grow after officials said they were lifting a curfew in Mingora so that people could leave. Senior official Khushal Khan said Taliban fighters had been seen roaming the area and laying mines and that people should move to a temporary camp established in the nearby town of Dargai. That order was later rescinded but reports said people were already leaving. Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), said up to 500,000 people were expected to flee the valley and that a total of six new refugee camps were being readied.
"We are leaving the area to save our lives," Sayed Iqbal, a 35-year-old cloth merchant who was putting household goods in a pickup truck already loaded with his family, told the Associated Press. "The government has announced people should leave the area. What is there left to say?"
Last night, with black-turbaned Taliban reportedly on the main roads in Mingora, a Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, said the peace deal had "been dead" since the military last week launched its operation in Buner. "Everything will be OK once our rulers stop bowing before America," he added.
As Mr Obama prepares to outline his regional strategy to Mr Zardari and Mr Karzai, Washington has also been seeking fresh assurances about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Previously it had always been considered the weapons were safely in the control of the country’s military leadership, but as militants have moved ever closer to Islamabad, concern has grown in Washington. This may reflect that Washington does not know the location of all of Pakistan’s weapons. Yesterday it was reported that US officials may already be in behind-the-scenes talks with their counterparts about helping Pakistan safeguard its nuclear stockpile.