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Pakistan: Swat residents turned away on road home

world Updated: Jun 05, 2009 15:00 IST
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Hundreds of Pakistani refugees were stopped from returning to their homes in the Swat Valley on Friday, even after the army chief said the battle against the Taliban there had "decisively turned" in the military's favor.

Meanwhile, intelligence officials said four soldiers died when a remote-controlled roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle in South Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan that some suspect will be the next site of Pakistani military action against the Taliban.

Pakistani leaders insist they are serious about wiping out militancy in Swat, a one-time tourist haven that largely fell under Taliban control over the past two years. The US backs the operation and sees it as a test of the government's resolve in taking on al-Qaida and Taliban militants along the Afghan border region.

The generally broad public support in Pakistan for the operation, however, could falter if conditions worsen for the up to 3 million displaced civilians, many of whom are impatient to go home. US envoy Richard Holbrooke was in the country on Friday assessing the refugee situation caused by the Swat fighting. An Associated Press reporter on Friday saw hundreds of Swat residents at Got Koto, an area just outside the valley.

The Swatis had heard reports the government would lift a curfew in the main town of Mingora to let them return home. But security forces on a main road stopped them, saying they could not allow civilians back in just yet.

"I want nothing from the government. I only want that we should be allowed to go back to our Mingora city," said Dilawar Khan, 40, as his four children and two wives stood by him under the shade of a tree. Khan and his family had been staying at a relief camp in Mardan.

Zubayda Bibi, one of his wives, complained about conditions at the camps, located in areas that are much warmer than what Swat residents are accustomed to. "We can no longer sit at the camps where there is only dust, diseases and heat," she said. Even if damaged, "home is better than anything."

The army launched its latest operation in Swat about month ago after the militants undermined the peace deal brokered earlier this year by infiltrating a neighboring district just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad. That truce, in which the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the valley and surrounding areas, was mediated by Islamist cleric Sufi Muhammad.

The military said security forces detained Muhammad's deputy Maulana Alam, his spokesman Ameer Izzat Khan, and another aide, Syed Wahab, during a raid Thursday to nab suspected militants at a religious school in a district near Swat.

Officers seized eight hand grenades and other munitions at the site, the army statement said. Muhammad's whereabouts were not immediately clear, but various officials told the AP he was not detained.

The army's top spokesman has estimated it will take at least another two months before the Swat Valley is cleared of militants. The military expects to stay in the region at least another year, largely because the area lacks a solid police presence.

During a briefing with commanders Thursday, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said the tide in Swat had "decisively turned" and that major population centers and roads leading to the valley were rid of Taliban resistance. Still, he said security forces were still hunting top Taliban commanders and that isolated incidents of violence would likely continue.

About 160,000 of the displaced Pakistanis are now living in relief camps. The US has pledged $110 million to help the refugees. Holbrooke said this week the White House hopes Congress will agree to at least $200 million more in aid.

The envoy, who visited a couple of the relief camps on Thursday, was meeting with Pakistani officials on Friday.

Even if the military is successful in defeating the Taliban in Swat, the militants still have other strongholds in Pakistan including South Waziristan, the main base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

Recent violence has fueled reports the army will mount a new operation there, though military officials say the Taliban are attacking troops in the tribal areas to distract them from Swat.

The roadside bomb that killed four soldiers Friday also wounded two in the army convoy heading toward SpinKai Raghzai, said two intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media.

Also Friday, a parcel bomb went off at a lawmaker's home in the southern city of Karachi, wounding the politician and three others, said Ashfaq Alam, a senior police officer. The bomb, concealed in a diary, was low intensity and the injuries were not severe, he said.

The apparent target, Yaqoob Bizenjo, is a member of the National Assembly representing southwestern Baluchistan province _ a suspected base for the Afghan Taliban. Baluchistan has also been the scene of a long-running low-level insurgent movement that wants more autonomy for the region and a greater share of money from its natural resources.

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