Pakistan, Taliban Fighting Intensifies In Swat Valley

A humanitarian crisis in Pakistan's Northwest Province is deepening. Thousands of civilians streamed out of the militant stronghold of Swat Valley on Sunday, hoping to escape before Pakistan's army resumed bombarding Taliban militants there.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Pakistan, a humanitarian crisis in the northwest province is deepening. Thousands more of fearful civilians streamed out of the militant stronghold of Swat Valley, yesterday, hoping to escape before the army resumed bombarding Taliban militants there.

The fighting has gotten even fiercer. Security forces now claim to have killed up to 200 Islamic extremists in the past 24 hours. The Taliban militants have also reportedly mined the roads, which makes fleeing the conflict zone even more dangerous.

NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us on the line from Islamabad, and Julie, describe this mass exodus. It sounds like tens of thousands of people pouring out.

JULIE MCCARTHY: That's right. It's said that not since partition, when Pakistan was formed, has the country seen anything like this migration. An estimated 100,000 people fled Swat Valley yesterday.

The few hours the army lifted the curfew, wasn't much time to pack up their lives. Panicked families were sprinting to the roads and cramming into anything that was moving. Many others sort of set off on foot because the transport is scarce - the army is refusing to allow vehicles to come into Swat Valley for fear that Taliban would use them to send reinforcements back in.

Mingora, the main city, is described as a ghost town. Ninety percent of the people have fled and many of those who have made it to neighboring districts are being turned away from camps that are too full to accommodate them.

MONTAGNE: And, you know, I've seen photographs of camps and people seem to have lugged, you know, some of them their beds - whatever they could take. What, generally, are conditions in these camps?

MCCARTHY: Well, they're hot, they're overcrowded, and they're miserable. You know, an entire family occupies a single tent. In one camp, yesterday, I saw people rushing the water truck that trundled in, creating clouds of dust. The children looked sick. The doctors there say that contagious diseases like scabies are rampant, along with gastrointestinal problems. Mosquitoes and flies are everywhere.

The international aid agencies, such as the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, are providing a lot of the resources like the tents, but the need is enormous. There's long lines for food and registration. There's little electricity. And the women were complaining that they're afraid to use the latrines at night.

Unrest actually broke out at one of these camps over the weekend. And the Pakistani newspapers say, that if the refugee crisis isn't better handled, the popular support the government saw after its decision to go after the Taliban could easily erode.

MONTAGNE: Back to how things are going in the Swat Valley. Have Pakistani forces gained ground?

MCCARTHY: Well, the army is, by all accounts, keeping up a heavy assault on the Taliban, and by their count some 500 militants have been killed since the start of this operation four days ago.

But you know, Renee, none of these figures can be independently verified. And while the body count rises, it's not clear that it has translated into territorial gains for the army. People who fled Mingora said that the Taliban is still in control and that the police only venture out for afternoon prayers.

MONTAGNE: Any idea how long this offensive will last? I mean do people expect to get home any time soon?

MCCARTHY: Yes they do, but I think that expectation is bumping up against a very different reality. The Taliban is dug in, and according to residents, are now fortifying themselves in the houses that people vacated and they're using them as bunkers.

Battling that guerilla insurgency is a tough, slow grind. So far, the army has heavily relied on aerial bombardment to soften up Taliban positions, and the next step would be a ground offensive. The army should be able to push back the Taliban if they fight house to house.

But, you know, that causes a lot of destruction and defeating the Taliban is as much a political project as a military one. So the government has to balance between all the destruction and not losing popular support.

MONTAGNE: How is the fact that this conflict is raging just a morning's drive from the capital Islamabad, how is that affecting the operation?

MCCARTHY: Well, it certainly adds to the urgency and I think it might help explain why President Asif Ali Zardari felt the need to stay in the United States to continue to deny this weekend, that Pakistan is collapsing. Displaced families might imagine their president here instead, but the national leadership has been conspicuously absent from this disaster.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking to us from Islamabad. Thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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