Swat conflict triggers largest, swiftest refugee exodus: UNHCR

May 22nd, 2009 - 7:57 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 22 (IANS) The Pakistani military’s anti-Taliban operations in the country’s troubled northwest has triggered the largest and swiftest refugee exodus anywhere in the world in recent times, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The social welfare department of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government says it has registered 1.45 million refugees at its 22 relief camps but the actual number could be as high as 2.5 million as many of the displaced persons could be staying with friends and relatives.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who met some of displaced people during a three-day visit to Pakistan last week, has called for urgent and massive international help from governments and other donors for those left homeless by fighting, a posting on the UNHCR website said.

Guterres said humanitarian workers were struggling to keep up with the size and speed of the displacement and warned of the consequences if the uprooted people - and tens of thousands of host families trying to care for them - don’t get help fast.

“It’s like trying to catch something that’s moving ahead of us because the number of people on the move every day is so big and the response is never enough,” he said before leaving Pakistan.

“Leaving this population without the support they need - with such massive numbers - could constitute an enormous destabilising factor,” he added.

“We haven’t seen anything so big and so fast in years,” UNHCR chief spokesperson Ron Redmond said of the refugee crisis.

Simultaneously with appealing for international help, UNHCR is encouraging local donations. The UNHCR office in Islamabad has also opened a dedicated account at the Standard Chartered Bank to receive donations from the public for its operations.

It has also established a relief bank and distribution centre in the NWFP town of Nowshera to receive and hand out contributions such as pillows, soap, simple water coolers and clothing. Additional relief banks are planned for Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.

The UN office in Islamabad said Friday $543 million would be required for their rehabilitation. On Thursday, Pakistan had won pledges of $244 million at a donors conference in Islamabad.

Pakistani security forces are currently engaged in a bitter struggle against the Taliban in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir districts of NWFP.

The operations had begun April 26 after the Taliban reneged on a controversial peace accord with the NWFP government and moved south from their Swat headquarters to occupy Buner, which is just 100 km from Islamabad.

The operations had begun in Lower Dir, the home district of radical cleric Sufi Mohammad who had brokered the peace deal and who is the father-in-law of Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah.

The operations subsequently spread to Buner and Swat. Close to 1,100 militants have so far been killed in the action, the military says. No consolidated figures have been released of casualties among the security forces but these are believed to be around 60.

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