Pak war zone to face 'Catastrophe'

ISLAMABAD: Thousands of civilians trapped in Pakistan's northwest where the military is pounding Taliban insurgents face "humanitarian catastrophe" unless help reaches them soon, a rights watchdog said Tuesday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said people were living with scant food and water in regions of the rugged northwest where security forces are bombarding Taliban militants in a push to extinguish their two-year insurgency.

"People trapped in the Swat conflict zone face a humanitarian catastrophe unless the Pakistani military immediately lifts a curfew that has been in place continuously for the last week," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director.

"The government cannot allow the local population to remain trapped without food, clean water and medicine as a tactic to defeat the Taliban."

It urged Islamabad to lift a curfew in the under-siege Swat valley and nearby districts of the North West Frontier Province. The military launched their offensive in Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28 and Swat on May 8.

Reports of civilians killed in the crossfire continued to flood in, the group said, as people break the curfew in desperate bids to find food and water for their families, or try and escape the aerial and ground bombardments.

"The Pakistani government should take all possible measures, including airdrops of food, water and medicine to quickly alleviate large-scale human suffering in Swat," said Adams.

Fleeing civilians have said that the price of goods in the conflict zones is soaring ten-fold, while medical assistance was almost impossible as hospitals had shut their doors and doctors had fled the conflict zone.

"Dead bodies lay unburied and the critically injured faced likely death as all medical facilities in the valley had shut down and medicines were unavailable," the group's statement said.

Beheadings of civilians at the hands of Taliban insurgents also continued, the group said, while Human Rights Watch said they had reports of 30 civilians killed in military strikes.

Pakistan's military has said it is taking all possible measures to avoid civilian casualties. They have not released any figures for such deaths.

The military says nearly 1,160 militants and 69 soldiers have died in the current offensive, but those tolls cannot be confirmed independently.

Troops entered the Swat capital Mingora on Saturday and are currently fighting to regain control of the Taliban-held town, raising fears of more civilian deaths as the battles move from mountainous regions to urban areas.