A top US envoy visited Pakistani refugees who have fled fighting between their country's military and Taliban guerrillas and told them on Thursday that the United States can't offer them security, but it can offer them aid. "It's up to the Pakistan army to give you security that is not our job," Richard Holbrooke said on Thursday, going tent by tent to talk to refugees in a camp in Mardan.
But he said the US could help on the humanitarian front. "We are giving assistance." The visit in Pakistan's northwest by Holbrooke, the top US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of a series of unusually high-profile gestures by US officials here in the wake of the refugee crisis. Up to 3 million people have been displaced by Pakistani military's month-old operation in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas a battle the US supports.
US officials who visit or work in Pakistan tend to be careful in advertising their presence or aid projects due to worries about security in a country where anti-Americanism runs deep. On Wednesday, Holbrooke rejected a purported claim by Osama bin Laden that the US was responsible for the refugees' displacement. The US has already pledged $110 million in aid to the refugees, and the White House is pushing to send another $200 million. The vast majority of the evacuees have been staying with relatives and friends, while around 200,000 are in tent camps.
Holbrooke and his entourage flew into the camps using four helicopters whose arrival spurred a quick sandstorm in the already dusty, hot camps. The group was accompanied by a heavy contingent of US and Pakistani security.
The camps Holbrooke visited were run by the Red Cross and the UN. The envoy asked refugees for their individual stories and about the Taliban. Many refugees said they needed electric fans for the sweltering heat, and complained about the food.
Abdul Sajid, a farmer from the Buner district just south of Swat, told Holbrooke: "Our crops are destroyed, and we are getting nothing here. It is coming, the food, but it is not good. I am not satisfied with the conditions at the camp. Now we need your help." The US has given a lot of support, "but it is up to the United Nations and the Pakistan government to carry out the programs. We are not in the camps," Holbrooke replied.
In a newly broadcast audiotape purportedly issued by bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader said President Barack Obama has inflamed hatred toward the US by ordering Pakistan to crack down on militants in Swat Valley and block Islamic law in the area. He claimed US pressure led to a campaign of "killing, fighting, bombing and destruction" that prompted the exodus of a million Muslims from the Swat Valley.
Holbrooke rejected the idea the US was responsible for the crisis during a press conference on Wednesday in Islamabad. "The idea that anyone is responsible for the refugee crisis other than al-Qaida and the Taliban and the other people that have caused such tragedy in Pakistan is ludicrous," Holbrooke said. "This entire problem began with al-Qaida and its associates and everybody in the world knows that. It's silly indeed to respond to such a ludicrous charge."
Bin Laden's message was broadcast for the first time on Wednesday on pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Television at almost the same moment Obama touched down in Saudi Arabia for a Mideast visit aimed at repairing frayed US relations with the Muslim world.
Al-Jazeera aired excerpts and did not say how the tape was obtained. Its authenticity could not be immediately verified. The Swat offensive has been coupled with increasing militant activity in the semi-autonomous tribal region bordering Afghanistan as well as what appear to be revenge attacks in other parts of the country.
Earlier this week, dozens of students and staff driving away from a boys school in the North Waziristan tribal region were kidnapped by suspected militants.
Reports on the numbers involved have varied wildly, but officials said on Thursday that the last batch of abductees was rescued. Deputy Interior Minister Tasnim Qureshi told state-run Pakistan Television that 46 students and two teachers were rescued. Lawmaker Saleh Shah told The Associated Press that tribal elders had negotiated their release, while the army also confirmed they were found.
The students were believed to have been held somewhere in the tribal areas, possibly South Waziristan, the main base of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
The Swat offensive has broad public support, but how Pakistan deals with the refugee crisis could have an impact. In a new report, the International Crisis Group said the Pakistani government must also be prepared to help refugees when they return to Swat by devising a blueprint for reconstruction and prioritizing police training in the region to keep the peace. The Brussels-based think tank also said the international community should encourage Pakistan to stop fighting long enough so that aid can reach civilians still trapped in the battle zone. The group further urged Pakistan to scrap a regulation that imposes an Islamic justice system in Swat and surrounding areas. Pakistan agreed to the rule earlier this year as part of a peace deal with the Taliban that eventually collapsed.
However, Karim Khattak, a top government official for the region, told reporters visiting Swat on Wednesday that the rule would not be tossed aside because it was a long-standing demand of area residents fed up with the inefficient regular judicial system. Taliban militants in Swat had exploited the grievance to gain supporters in the area.