DAVID GREENE, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
We turn now to Pakistan, where the Army said today that more than 150 Taliban militants have been killed during the five-day-old operation to dislodge the extremists from the northwest district of Buner. The fighting has emptied villages as thousands flee for safety. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.
JULIE McCARTHY: Escaping the siege, people take to cars, tractors and donkeys, an electric fan swings from the hump of a camel that heaves under the weight of hastily packed possessions. The burning heat withers fleeing families and their cargo.
(Soundbite of chicken)
McCARTHY: Travel is slow through the treacherous mountain roads. Signs of the conflict mar the sweeping scenery. From atop the peak of the village of Durmai(ph), we spot young men scavenging through the wreckage of a bombed out police station that Taliban militants had destroyed. The distant thud of a shell sets off urgent warnings to travelers on the road below.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
McCARTHY: The bombardment is going on, says a breathless young boy. There are firings and explosions, another man advises.
The military is heavily relying on artillery and airstrikes to hit the Taliban that has taken the high ground in the mountains. The militants pushed into Buner last week from their stronghold in Swat Valley. Locals point out spots on the roadside where militants planted explosives to slow the army's advance.
Pakistan's military says following fierce resistance, troops secured the Ambella(ph) Pass, a strategic ridge that overlooks a southwest portion of Buner some seven miles from here. But the operation to flush out the militants has also sewn panic.
Mohamed Nawaz(ph) is desperate for word from his family. The bearded young student who studies in Islamabad is making the hazardous journey back home.
Mr. MOHAMED NAWAZ: (Foreign language spoken)
McCARTHY: I haven't read that my village has been bombed but there's been shelling in Ambella nearby, so naturally I'm worried, he says. I have come back with all my books and bags. How can I prepare for exams, he asks. If we die, we will die together. Such, he says, are Pakistan's circumstances. Nawaz says the government has betrayed the people of Buner by failing to stop the Taliban before now. He says the local population held three jurgas(ph), or meetings, and decided against the Taliban entering.
Mr. NAWAZ: (Foreign language spoken)
McCARTHY: They should not have been allowed to come. They should have been controlled if they were controllable that day, he says. And at that time people were with the government. But what was the government doing then, he asks, and why, he says, is the army coming a week after the militants without any notice or chance to evacuate? Nawaz apologizes for talking bitterly.
The army says it has killed scores of Taliban. This elderly gentleman says army shelling in his now-deserted village of Ambella killed civilians as well. He asks to be identified only as Mahmoud(ph).
Mr. MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken)
McCARTHY: A cannon shot hit a house of our neighbor and ripped their horse in half. It was impossible to collect all the body parts of their son, he says. What kind of injustice is this, he later asks, saying the operation is to please the United States. Mahmoud chokes back tears that he says are for all the suffering.
Mr. MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken)
McCARTHY: People are ruined, women widowed, children orphaned, the cattle dead, the 72-year-old says. He goes on: There is no electricity, no water, and it is so pitch dark, it's as if there is no one in this land.
In impoverished Buner, farmers in mid-harvest have abandoned their fields and local hospitals report tending to wounds from assault rifles.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.
GREENE: And we should add that Junead Kahn(ph) contributed to that report from Buner.
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