Pak struggles to aid displaced

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan boasted of a military victory in a small Taliban stronghold but struggled to provide for 1.5 million people who fled its onslaught as fears grow of a lengthening crisis.

The military ordered the offensive last month under US pressure to crush rebels in the northwest, which Washington said threatened the very existence of the Muslim country and posed the greatest terror threat to the West.

Government troops have been battling fighters around Sultanwas -- a small town under Taliban control in Buner district -- for some time, but the military claimed to have regained control and killed 80 rebels in a fierce assault.

"Security forces cleared Sultanwas last night after intense clashes. Reportedly 80 militants were killed," the military said in a statement.

Witness reports of heavy fighting in Buner this week have embarrassed claims from the interior minister on Sunday that operations there had ended.

As the conflict ploughs on, concerns are mounting about how to cope with the displaced, uprooted in what rights groups have called Pakistan's biggest movement of people since partition from India in 1947.

A US congressional committee approved a giant aid package for Pakistan but more political dealing was expected amid controversy over the conditions it imposes on Islamabad.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a plan to triple US aid to 1.5 billion dollars annually through the 2013 fiscal year, with a focus on development including improving education.

US President Barack Obama has endorsed plans to ramp up aid to Pakistan, hoping it will boost his administration's key goal of rooting out extremism both in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation and neighboring Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of people are living in government-run camps, crammed into tents in the scorching summer heat with poor sanitation.

"Life in this camp is even worse than the life of animals," said Amna Rashid, a student sheltering at a camp near the town of Mardan.

"When I leave my tent, camp staff look at me as if I were a call girl. It is really disgusting and painful," Rashid told AFP by telephone.

"Neither we nor the government expected this number of refugees, of IDPs (internally displaced persons)," said Rienk Van Velzen, a spokesman for aid group World Vision.

The US defence representative in Islamabad, Rear Admiral Michael LeFever, said Pakistani authorities expected large numbers of displaced people would remain at the temporary camps to the end of the year.

"It appears that this will last, they say they anticipate this population in IDP camps to last through December," LeFever told reporters in Washington in a teleconference.

The United Nations said that around 1.5 million people left their homes this month and registered with authorities, joining about 550,000 IDPs who fled previous bouts of fighting in the troubled northwest.

Dominique Frankefort, emergency coordinator with the UN World Food Programme (WFP), said two million people would need food until at least September.

"We are catching up, if you have 200,000 additional IDPs coming in per day you cannot feed them immediately," he told AFP, adding: "There are very few non-governmental organisations and there is very little government assistance."

Pakistan has appointed a well respected military officer, Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmad, to head its emergency response and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is due to chair an international donors' conference on Thursday.

"We are fighting one war with our enemy and the other war is on the issue of IDPs and we have to win both the wars," Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told a news conference.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has unveiled 100 million dollars in aid for the displaced, but Frankefort warned that there was only enough money to feed hungry refugees until mid-July and urged more donors to step forward.

Pakistan's military says up to 15,000 troops are taking on 4,000 well-armed fighters in Swat, where Islamabad has ordered a battle to eradicate militants who advanced to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the Pakistani capital.

The military, which charged Wednesday that the militants are paid 50 to 60 dollars a day for fighting government forces, claim to have killed 1,057 "terrorists" but there is no indication of an immediate end to the offensive.

A statement released Wednesday said that 58 soldiers has been killed and 187 wounded during the near four-week-long campaign.