Pakistani Civilians Forced To Flee Swat Valley

Pakistan's security forces continue to battle Taliban militants in the country's once idyllic Swat Valley. The Army says 35 militants have been killed in the past 24 hours of fighting. Thousands of civilians have been forced to flee.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go across the border now into Pakistan, where refugee camps are filling up. Pakistan's army and the Taliban have turned the Swat valley into a battle zone. And in the last 24 hours, thousands of civilians have been pouring into refugee camps that were already overflowing.

From Islamabad, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the spreading humanitarian crisis.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

JULIE McCARTHY: Tea, the essential ingredient in Pakistan's morning meal, is liberally poured at the Jolala(ph) camp for displaced people, where the bleary new arrivals from Swat valley take their turn to be served. It's estimated that about 20 percent of those fleeing the broad arch of the conflict that has gripped in North West Pakistan are being accommodated in small relief camps like this one of some 1,500 people. The weary but relaxed atmosphere here contrasts to the traumatic events undergone by the refugees.

Bibi Ashiya(ph) arrived with her husband and six children Tuesday night and pitched up in tents supplied by the UN High Commission for Refugees. She said they had only minutes to pack during the brief pause in the crossfire that raked the houses in her neighborhood in the densely populated village of Rahimabad, just outside the central city of Mingora. Bibi says they left in such a hurry, the bread was still warm on their plates.

Ms. BIBI ASHIYA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Nobody ate anything at all, and our neighbors were panicked, she says. In the confusion, some grabbed only their shirts, others grabbed only their pants and came rushing out of their houses. No one was injured, but the people were terrified. Bibi says bullets were raining down on the cemetery near us. And she asks what else could be more miserable than this?

Local relief organizations put the number of those forced from their homes by the two weeks of fighting in the area somewhere around 100,000. In addition to the displaced, there are the dead. Civilian casualties are mounting as clashes between Pakistani troops and Taliban forces escalate.

In the Swat Valley, the army took control of a militant-commandeered emerald mine following an aerial assault that local eyewitnesses say began suddenly in the predawn hours yesterday. Local television reporter Niaz Ahmed, who was sleeping at his home nearby, says he heard and saw helicopter gunships attacking the mine. The army says 35 militants were killed in the course of the engagement, which Niaz says came in three phases over 10 hours. Later, he says, he saw 16 bodies - 12 of them children - laid out by relatives whose houses, Niaz says, lie on the foothills leading to the mine.

Mr. NIAZ AHMED (Television Reporter): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: These people died at different times and belonged to different families, he says. Some bodies had no limbs, some had no hands, some had no legs. They were in a terrible condition, he says.

Niaz says the Taliban fighters had taken cover behind the homes of the victims when the attack on the emerald mines started. He is careful not to apportion blame for the casualties that included a young, pregnant woman and her husband. They had been raced to a nearby clinic, but succumbed to their injuries when the fighting prevented the couple from being moved to another better-equipped facility.

Army sources said they targeted the top of the mountain of the mine, and that the operations could not have resulted in civilian casualties below. Roedad Khan doesn't believe it. A former secretary general of the Interior Ministry, Kahn is now a human rights advocate. He says the confrontations between Pakistan's army and the Taliban have a history of unleashing savagery that afflicts ordinary citizens most of all.

Mr. ROEDAD KAHN (Former Secretary General, Interior Ministry, Pakistan): They are sandwiched between the militants and the Pakistan army. And my reports are that most of these people in casualties, most of them are caused by the Pakistan army, you know, as a result of the military operation. This is inadmissible, you know. How can you kill people, innocent people, you know, in the name of fighting militants and terrorists, you know? This is disgusting.

MCCARTHY: Kahn says the army is chasing an agile enemy that takes the hills and that Pakistan's forces are ill-equipped to wage a counterinsurgency. The army says it exercises maximum restraint in its operations to safeguard the lives of innocent people. But with civilian casualties rising, that assessment is certain to come under greater scrutiny.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

INSKEEP: Junaid Kahn contributed to this report.

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