Thousands flee Pakistani war zone

Mardan, May 7: Thousands of terrified Pakistanis dodged Taliban roadblocks to flee fighting today between the army and insurgents in a northwestern valley, streaming into refugee camps and crowding hospitals with their fatigued and hungry children.

According to the United Ntions, tens of thousands have fled their homes in recent days from the Swat Valley where a militant-government peace pact collapsed this week.

The exodus adds to more than five lakh already displaced by fighting in Pakistan’s volatile border region with Afghanistan.

The violence flared just as Pakistan’s embattled president was appealing in Washington for more help to reverse the extension of Taliban-held territory to within 100 km of the capital, Islamabad. The US has welcomed Pakistan’s fresh military action.

On Thursday, several thousand men, women and children — most riding cars, buses and tractors, but some of them on foot — took advantage of an easing in the army curfew to pour through Swat’s main town, Mingora, in search of safety.

The ramshackle convoys were rolling up hours later at a string of camps set up by Pakistani authorities and the UN in the city of Mardan and neighbouring towns. Hospitals in Mardan treated dozens of civilians with serious gunshot and shrapnel wounds, children among them.

At the Tuberculosis Hospital in Mardan, hundreds of the displaced jostled before desks manned by hard-pressed volunteers to register for a tent and a handout of emergency supplies.

Yar Mohammad, a 50-year-old stone mason, told an Associated Press reporter that he had “poured his blood” and his best years into the development of Swat, once a haven for tourists drawn to its Alpine-like scenery.

“Now I am seeing the buildings that I have helped to construct being blown up and destroyed,” he said, blaming both the Taliban and the authorities.

Some residents complained that the Taliban had blocked their escape.

Ayaz Khan said he loaded his family into his car today in the Kanju area of Swat only to find rocks, boulders and tree trunks laid across the roads, forcing him to turn back.

“I am helpless, frustrated and worried for my family,” he told an AP reporter by telephone from his home.

The military claimed to have killed more than 80 militants in Swat and the neighbouring Buner region on Wednesday. Officials have said nothing about civilian casualties. But those fleeing the region bore tales of families wiped out by stray shells.

Fazl Hadi, a doctor at another hospital in Mardan, said it had admitted 45 civilians with serious gunshot or shrapnel wounds in recent days and was bracing for many more.

Among the youngest patients was Chaman Ara, a 12-year-old girl with shrapnel wedged in her left leg. She said she was wounded last week when a mortar shell hit the truck taking her family and others out of Buner.