MINGORA, Pakistan – Tens of thousands of civilians, many on foot or donkey-led carts, took advantage of a lifted curfew to flee Pakistan’s embattled Swat Valley on Sunday, while the army said it had killed 400 to 500 militants in its battle against the Taliban.
The hemorrhaging of residents from a scenic valley that once attracted hordes of tourists threatened to greatly exacerbate an existing internal refugee crisis for a nuclear-armed nation already facing economic, political and other woes.
The army offensive has garnered praise from the U.S., which wants Pakistan to root out havens on its soil where Taliban militants can plan attacks on American and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. In an interview aired Sunday, Pakistan’s president urged international support for the fight and insisted the army had enough troops in the northwest to handle the threat.
As they left Swat’s main town of Mingora, some residents cursed the situation and condemned the Taliban, while others blamed Pakistani leaders for bowing to the West. “Show our picture to your master America and get money from him,” some taunted.
Fighter jets and helicopter gunships have pounded Swat and surrounding districts over the past few days after Taliban fighters in the valley moved out and tried to impose their reign in other areas, including a stretch just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad.
The army’s nine-hour suspension of the curfew Sunday could signal a more intense operation now that more civilians have left. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said 400 to 500 militants had been killed since the operation’s launch last week.
Much of the latest fighting occurred along the periphery of Swat and Shangla, a neighboring district, he said, and at least 140 bodies of alleged militants were discovered at a militant training camp in that area.
In Swat, Mingora was relatively calm, though an army statement said 50 to 60 militants died Sunday in various parts of the valley. Taliban fighters remained visible in Mingora.
In the northwest district of Mardan, government official Khalid Umerzai said more than 100,000 displaced Pakistanis were expected Sunday, on top of 252,000 already there.
“Vehicles loaded with people are coming down bumper-to-bumper from Swat, and we are expecting a huge crowd of people and organizing two more relief camps in Mardan and Takhtbai,” Umerzai said.
Before the latest operation, some 550,000 people were registered as displaced from past offensives in other parts of Pakistan’s northwest, including the semi-autonomous tribal belt, according to the United Nations.
The international aid agency World Vision said its relief workers were finding “intolerable” conditions at some camps due to soaring temperatures, overcrowding, inadequate toilets and a lack of electricity.
“Despite the coordinated efforts of the Pakistani authorities, World Vision and other aid agencies on the ground, we may not be able to meet the most basic needs of the refugees as quickly as they are arriving in the camps if it continues at this pace,” said Jeff Hall, an official with the aid group.
Many in the northwest have little faith in the weak civilian government’s ability to help them, a challenge to Pakistan’s leaders because disillusioned refugees could prove fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban.
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