Taliban, Pakistani army putting civilians to risk: Rights body

May 19th, 2009 - 4:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban New York, May 19 (IANS) The Taliban’s use of landmines and human shields and the Pakistani army’s aerial and artillery attacks are placing civilians at “unnecessary risk” in the continued fighting in the county’s Swat valley, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.
Residents of Swat’s largest town of Mingora, the epicentre of the fighting, told HRW that Taliban militants had laid landmines in the town and prevented many civilians from fleeing, using them as “human shields” to deter attacks.

Pakistani forces appeared to have taken insufficient precautionary measures in aerial and artillery attacks that have caused a high loss of civilian life, HRW said, expressing concern that food and medical supplies were not reaching the population in the embattled area.

“The Taliban’s use of landmines and human shields is a sorry addition to their long list of abuses in the Swat Valley. They urgently need to let civilians leave areas of fighting,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams.

Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has estimated that close to two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) had been registered at various relief camps. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has described the situation as “a massive, massive displacement in the world today”.

Mingora residents told HRW that less than 10,000 civilians remain in the town. Taliban fighters have prevented many from leaving, while others are too infirm or poor, or are unwilling to leave. Several thousand Taliban remain in the town. The Taliban also continued to use battery-operated FM radios and patrols to communicate with residents and impose their authority.

Swat residents still in the valley and people fleeing to the towns of Swabi and Mardan told HRW that the Taliban had laid landmines at eight places in Sohrab Khan Chowk, a square in the centre of Mingora.

Sharifabad, a village near the Haji Baba area about three kilometres from Mingora, has been mined in four places. Residents have seen the landmines being planted, and the Taliban told civilians that they would be blown up if they walked on them.

The use of anti-personnel landmines - which are inherently indiscriminate in their targets - and holding civilians as human shields are serious violations of the laws of war, HRW noted.

It lamented that despite a directive from Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to “ensure minimum collateral damage even at the expense of taking risks, by resorting to precision strikes”, several reports had been received of high civilian casualties in the military operations.

On May 8 for instance, 35 people, including 14 children and four women, were killed when Pakistani army mortar shells and missiles struck the Shahdra and Wathke neighborhoods of Mingora.

On May 11, the aerial bombardment of Matta, a Taliban-controlled area in central Swat, resulted in the deaths of at least three women and eight children, witnesses told HRW.

“If Pakistan wants to win not just the battle for Swat but also a sustainable peace, its armed forces need to minimize civilian casualties and suffering,” Adams said. “The people of Swat will expect the Pakistani government and armed forces to protect their safety both during the fighting and afterward,” he added.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani too has expressed concern at the human tragedy unfolding as a result of the military action in NWFP.

“Militarily we will win the war, but it will be unfortunate if we lose it publicly,” Gilani said while intervening in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, during the debate on the military operations May 14.

The Pakistani military went into action April 26 after the Taliban violated 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 Taliban-backed radical cleric Sufi Mohammad, who had brokered the peace accord, and later spread to Buner and Swat.

The military says Lower Dir and Buner have been cleared of the Taliban and major successes are being achieved in Swat.

Swat, Buner, Lower Dir and four other districts of the NWFP are collectively known as the Malakand division, where, under the peace accord, Sharia laws were to be imposed in return for the Taliban laying down their arms.

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