Civilians suffer as Pakistan fights Taliban in Buner

May 4th, 2009 - 12:03 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban By Nadeem Sarwar
Islamabad, May 4 (DPA) As Pakistani military continues its push against Taliban militants in northwestern Buner district, there were reports of dozens of civilian casualties, damage to property and mass exodus from the region, locals in the area have said.

“There is destruction everywhere. We don’t know exactly how many have died but the losses are really huge,” Ali Akbar Sher, a former member of parliament from Buner, said Sunday.

“The military do not dare to go to the mountains where the militants are entrenched. Instead the jet fighters and army helicopters are targeting the civilian areas,” he added.

According to Sher, some 50,000 people had fled the district of around 600,000 population and more were leaving through difficult mountain tracks to the neighbouring Swabi and Mardan districts, where the Islamist relief workers had set up dozens of refugee camps.

Pakistani troops launched an air and ground assault in scenic valley of Buner Tuesday to expel Taliban fighters who infiltrated it from the neighbouring Swat district, violating a peace deal they signed with the government in February.

The Taliban’s expansion set alarm bells ringing in Washington with the militants moving dangerously close to the capital of nuclear-armed Pakistan by invading Buner, some 100 km north-west of Islamabad, in early April.

The officials claim more than 100 rebels and two soldiers died in five days of deadly clashes. But no confirmed data about the civilian casualties is so far available as journalists or relief workers are not allowed to travel to the conflict area, and the military provides no information in this regard.

A Buner-based journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he faced limitations set by the security forces while reporting collateral damage, said the army was not very selective in its targets.

“On Thursday, army helicopters targeted eight trucks and vehicles carrying some families near Palam Tangi area when they were fleeing from Swari area to Mardan. All of them, including women, children and elders, died,” he said.

In another incident, the troops opened fire at a van that was carrying half a dozen female schoolteachers near Ambela Pass. Everyone, including the driver was killed, he said, adding that almost every third house in Ambela village has been damaged by the shelling.

“We have no idea how many people died there, the numbers, as the locals say, vary between 50 and 60. Bodies are lying along the roads for the last two to three days in some areas and are being eaten up by the vultures and dogs. These areas are filled with a rotten smell,” said the journalist.

A military spokesman responded to the reports with anger.

“These are not authentic reports. How is it possible that the bodies are lying along the roads,” said Colonel Attique-ur-Rehman.

A major humanitarian crisis was looming over the violence-wrecked Buner district, the English-language Dawn newspaper warned.

Around 100 patients and 25 staffers in the district headquarters hospital in Daggar were facing shortage of food and medicines. Ambulances were not available to move the injured to the hospital.

Two ambulances had been taken away by militants and two others were stranded in Mardan because of roadblocks. Another ambulance parked in the hospital was out of fuel because militants had taken control of filling stations.

Military officials say the resilient militants were using local population as human shield as they offer tough resistance to the military and paramilitary soldiers.

Opposed to the presence of heavily-armed Taliban fighters in their area, many locals initially welcomed the military troops. But as the civilian losses swelled, the dissenting voices have started to emerge.

“We have no food. Our children are starving. The markets are closed because the security forces have imposed curfew in the area,” Abdul Rahman, a local, said over phone from Swari, the main trading centre in Buner.

“This is not our war. Who are we fighting for? For those selfish Americans whose stomachs are stuffed with nice food and they are sleeping with their families in their cosy bedrooms,” Rahman said angrily.

The former lawmaker, Sher, warned that if the security forces did not act carefully, the resentment is feared to spread not only in Buner but also in Swabi and Mardan districts where the refugees are moving with the stories of their sufferings.

“We should remember that Mardan and Swabi are far closer to Islamabad than Buner,” he warned.

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