Swat civilians flee as Pakistani army battles Taliban (Lead)

May 10th, 2009 - 6:06 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, May 10 (DPA) An exodus of thousands of civilians resumed in Pakistan’s Swat valley Sunday as a curfew was temporarily lifted to allow people to flee the intensifying conflict between the army and the Taliban fighters.
Authorities announced a break in the curfew until the afternoon and asked the residents of at least four areas near Swat’s main town of Mingora to leave for safer places outside the mountain district.

Officials said civilians were particularly advised to vacate Qambar and Rahimabad towns, where Taliban fighters had entrenched themselves among the local population.

Thousands of people poured into the streets, many of them moving on foot as the mass exodus caused a shortage of road transport.

A security official said vehicles were not being allowed to enter Swat to prevent suspected movement of the rebels.

That left the fleeing public struggling for transport, and there were also reports about inflated fares being charged by drivers.

Expressing concern over the “massive displacement”, the UN refugee agency said 200,000 people had already left the conflict-hit areas while another 300,000 were on the move or about to move.

Those trying to escape the escalating hostilities will join another 555,000 previously displaced people, most of them staying in rented houses or with relatives.

The fresh evacuation came as attack helicopters targeted militant positions in Mingora town. Cannon fire targeted buildings taken over by the Taliban fighters, a military spokesman in Swat said.

Casualties inflicted on the militants could not be known immediately, he added.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani Saturday said the security forces were battling the Taliban in “a fight for the survival of the country”.

The military has claimed killing nearly 200 militants, including some key commanders, in Swat since Friday when it launched a full-scale operation “to eliminate the terrorists”.

Air power was also being employed to strike militant hideouts in the scenic valley, which was a popular tourist resort until 2007, and its adjoining districts of Buner and Dir.

The Taliban fighters have expanded their influence in the region after signing a peace pact with the provincial government in February.

Under the accord, Islamic sharia law was introduced in Malakand division of the North-West Frontier Province, which includes Swat, in return for guarantees that the rebels would end their insurgency.

The unannounced collapse of the peace agreement came when the Taliban fighters last week began armed patrols and took over government buildings in Mingora, besides hitting military targets.

Separately, paramilitary troops repelled “a massive attack” near the Afghanistan border Sunday, killing 26 Islamist militants and injuring a dozen more, a spokesman said.

Scores of militants attacked a camp of the Frontier Corps paramilitary force in the Ambar area of the Mohmand tribal district at around 3.15 a.m. (2115 GMT), triggering a fierce gunfight that left 10 soldiers wounded.

Mohmand, a known hotbed of Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, lies next to the north-western Malakand region, which includes Swat.

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