Clashes in Swat drive thousands of Pakistanis

Pakistan PM Gilani said his government was considering a strategy for tackling unrest in northwestern Swat valley.

Clashes in Swat drive thousands of Pakistanis

Caught between the Pakistani military and Taliban fighters, thousands of civilians are fleeing from fighting in northwest Pakistan's Swat valley.

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani Sunday said his government was considering a strategy for tackling unrest in northwestern Swat valley.

Pakistan's military is battling extremists loyal to radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who is waging a campaign to introduce Islamic Shariah law in Swat, a mountainous valley that once attracted Western holiday makers.

"We have been punished for no fault of our own," said a man, Ikramullah, trudging along a mountain path with his family and about 100 other villagers laden with children and bundles of belongings on Monday.

A tearful Ikramullah said seven of his relatives had been killed on Sunday when his village of Chalis Palow in the valley's Charbagh district, was shelled.

No time for funerals

He said he was taking his family to stay with relatives in the Mardan region of North West Frontier Province.

Another man from Charbagh, Samiullah, 36, said most people had left his village and there was no one left to offer funeral prayers for those killed in the fighting.

People were burying their relatives in the yards of their homes, Samiullah said.

Hundreds of people have reportedly fled the area in recent days, heading for two relief camps opened at schools in and near the region's main city of Mingora.

The scenic Swat valley, only 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the capital, Islamabad, was until recently one of Pakistan's prime tourist destinations.

The fighting in the valley intensified sharply after the military assaulted a mosque complex in Islamabad in July 2007, killing more than 100 people.

The militants now control most of the valley, residents say.

But fighting has intensified since army chief General Ashfaq Kayani visited the valley last week, vowing to reimpose government control.

Latest clashes

The military said on Sunday 16 fighters had been killed in th latest clashes. But residents said about 40 civilians had also perished, many in shelling and air attacks by government forces.

The government says 1,200 civilians have been killed and about 2,000 wounded in violence in Swat since 2007, with most victims of militant suicide bombings, targetted killings by the Taliban, or in security force attacks on militant strongholds.

The government says the military is doing its utmost to avoid so-called collateral damage although critics say the military's use of artillery and helicopter gunships is bound to cause civilian casualties.

Taliban supporters have blown up 173 schools, 105 of them for girls, since 2007, Sher Afzal, an education ministry official, said last month.

Dialogue needed

Gilani emphasized that the unrest in Swat could not be tackled by the military alone and that political action and dialogue were also needed.

"We are finding a way out. We do not want to disclose the strategy right now, but soon Swat will be peaceful, like the rest of the country," said Gilani, adding that he would visit the region soon.

"In Swat, the dialogue did not work, therefore the government had to change the strategy from dialogue to military action," Gilani told a news conference here.

"We are looking at various options. We have both the capacity and the will, but we want such a strategy in which there is no collateral damage."

Government officials blame the militants for using villagers as human shields.

"Thousands of people are migrating from the areas of fighting because of the military operations and the militants' use of civilians as human shields," the valley's top administrator, Shaukat Khan Yousafzai, told Reuters.

"One of my officials said his village has a population of 25,000 people and almost 80 percent had left ... People are angry and disappointed," he said.

The people leaving Swat are joining several hundred thousand other villagers who have fled fighting elsewhere in the northwest, in particular the Bajaur region on the Afghan border.

Reuters
Last Mod: 02 Şubat 2009, 17:06
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