PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Thousands of panicked civilians began fleeing the conflict-ridden Swat Valley region Tuesday, fearing a full-fledged confrontation between government forces and Taliban fighters after the insurgents declared an end to their peace accord with the government.
Officials in the North-West Frontier Province predicted that half a million people would join the exodus from Swat, where Taliban fighters are occupying hundreds of houses and other buildings as they prepare to resist an anticipated assault by Pakistani army troops.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the provincial information minister, told journalists in this northwestern capital that six camps would be set up to accommodate refugees from Swat as they flee the scenic former tourist area.
Pakistani journalists reported seeing hundreds of frightened families clambering onto buses and trucks Tuesday in the Swati capital of Mingaora.
Army officials ordered residents of Mingaora to leave the area and lifted a nighttime curfew to enable their departure. Heavy gunfire was heard throughout the day and security forces were barricaded inside their bases, while heavily armed Taliban forces patrolled the streets and laid mines.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Muslim Khan, said the extremist forces controlled 90 percent of the Swat region.
He told Pakistani journalists that the Swat peace deal, in which officials agreed to implement strict Islamic law in the region if the insurgents agreed to disarm, was now dead.
For the past week, Pakistani military forces have been trying to push back Taliban fighters from the Buner district just south of Swat, but they have encountered strong resistance. Khan said the military offensive had betrayed the peace accord.
Refugees and officials from Buner, however, said the insurgents had occupied their district for almost one month in spite of widespread popular opposition and several efforts by local armed groups to force them to leave.
“Nobody supports them. They just came in and occupied our houses and took everything, even the matchboxes,” said Afsar Khan, the mayor of a town in Buner who fled to Peshawar several weeks ago. “Everyone has heard about the barbaric atrocities that took place in Swat, with Muslims slaughtering Muslims in the name of God.”
Pakistani military officials did not confirm reports that they plan to stage a massive operation in Swat, but the military press office in Islamabad, the capital, said in a statement Tuesday that Taliban forces in Swat were engaging in “gross violations” of the peace accord by harassing civilians, firing at police and military checkpoints and looting aid warehouses.
The militant forces, once limited to the semi-autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border, have been attempting to forcibly extend their power and their radical vision of Islam to areas within the state-ruled regions of the country.
The government, desperate to stop the intimidation and bloodshed, agreed last month to Taliban demands that strict Islamic law replace all state courts in Swat and the surrounding Malakand region.
In return, the extremist fighters promised to lay down their weapons; so far, however, Taliban leaders have found a series of reasons not to do so.