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All or nothing, say Pakistanis fleeing Taliban offensive

The Pakistan government needs to finish off Taliban militants once and for all in an offensive on their South Waziristan stronghold or risk them returning stronger and in greater numbers, residents say.

world Updated: Oct 21, 2009 15:17 IST
Kamran Haider

The Pakistan government needs to finish off Taliban militants once and for all in an offensive on their South Waziristan stronghold or risk them returning stronger and in greater numbers, residents say.

With the offensive by Pakistani troops against thousands of militants now in its fifth day, civilians who have fled the fighting say the die-hard insurgents, backed by hundreds of foreigners, will be hard to shift from their fortified positions.

"They have built bunkers and caves that cannot be hit even by bombing from the air," said Mohammed Jameel Mehsud, 75, registering at a site for displaced people this week at Dera Ismail Khan, in neighbouring North West Frontier Province.

Malik Mohammad Mehsud, another fleeing resident, said people were not willing to support half-hearted military action.

"If they are serious we are with them, otherwise we cannot risk our lives," he said, adding that he feared militant reprisals if the government abandoned the operation, as they have done in the past, or struck a truce with Taliban leaders.

Pakistani forces launched the South Waziristan offensive on Saturday after a series of bomb and commando-style attacks by Taliban militants across the country.

About 28,000 soldiers are battling an estimated 10,000 hard-core Taliban, including about 1,000 tough Uzbek fighters and some Arab al Qaeda members.

It follows a similar operation this year in the Swat Valley launched after the Taliban, emboldened by a government deal that gave them greater autonomy in some parts, moved into other areas as well, getting close to the capital and alarming Western allies.

So-called tribal agencies in Pakistan have long enjoyed a large degree of autonomy based on sharia law and ancient custom.

Pakistan's Taliban -- like their counterparts in Afghanistan -- draw much of their support from Pashtuns who live on both sides of the porous border, and the rugged mountains and valleys of Waziristan have become a sanctuary for Islamic militants including al Qaeda operatives.

HARDENED ATTITUDES

American drone aircraft have for years been attacking suspected militant positions in Pakistan from Afghanistan, occasionally hitting wrong targets and killing civilians, further hardening local attitudes towards foreigners and a central government accused of complicity.

Escaping the fighting is only half the battle, say those fleeing the area.

"Wherever we go, people treat us with suspicion, as if we are terrorists, just because we have come from Waziristan," said Jameel, a resident of Kaniguram where militants are well entrenched.


While the government and aid agencies do not expect a humanitarian crisis on the scale of the one that followed the Swat offensive, the United Nations refugee agency said on Wednesday about 32,000 people had fled in the past week, joining 80,000 who left since May.

Unlike in Swat, where the government established camps for the displaced, most of those fleeing South Waziristan are staying in second homes outside the province, or with relatives or friends.

Mohammad Khan, 40, accused the authorities of not thinking the offensive through before starting.

"They are bombing our houses and when people try to move out they are not letting them go," he said after arriving in Dar Ismail Khan with his 12-member family following a torturous journey that usually takes only a few hours.

"They have imposed curfews in several parts and are not letting us pass through blockades."