Fighting triggers mass exodus in Swat

ISLAMABAD: Fighting between Taliban militants and troops in a northwestern valley triggered an exodus the government said on Tuesday could see five lakh people flee and signalled the end of a peace deal in the area widely criticised as a surrender to the extremists.

Hundreds have already fled the Swat Valley, adding to the hundreds of thousands of existing refugees driven from other regions in the northwest over the last year by fighting between soldiers and insurgents, witnesses said.

The deteriorating situation in the valley came as Pakistan’s leader prepared for talks in Washington with President Barack Obama on how to sharpen his country’s fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban, which are blamed for attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

US officials said Obama would seek assurances from President Asif Ali Zardari that his country’s nuclear arsenal was safe and that the military intended to face down extremists in coordination with Afghanistan and the United States.

Although the administration thinks Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure for now, concern that militants might try to seize one or several of them is acute. The anxieties have heightened amid the Taliban’s recent advances and American worry about the commitment from Pakistan’s government and military in battling the extremists, the officials said.

Today, Khushal Khan, the top administrator in Swat said Taliban militants were roaming the area and laying mines.

A witness in the main town of Mingora said black-turbaned militants were deployed on most streets and on high buildings, and security forces were barricaded in their bases. Another reported heavy gunfire for much of the day.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the militants were in control of “90 per cent” of the valley and said their actions were in response to army violations of the peace deal such as attacking insurgents and boosting troop numbers in the region. He accused the government of acting under pressure from the US.

“Everything will be OK once our rulers stop bowing before America,” he told The Associated Press by cell phone, adding the peace deal had “been dead” since the operation in Buner.

Khushal Khan said authorities were lifting a curfew so people could leave Mingora, and a camp had been set up for the displaced in the nearby town of Dargai. Hundreds were leaving the city, according to an AP reporter in the town.

“We are leaving the area to save our lives,” said Sayed Iqbal, a 35-year-old cloth merchant who was putting household goods in a pickup truck already loaded with his elderly parents, wife and two children. “The government has announced people should leave the area. What is there left to say?” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for the North West Frontier Province, said up to five lakh people were expected to flee the valley. He said authorities were releasing emergency funds and preparing six new refugee camps to house them.