ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani civilians trapped by an offensive against the Taliban in Swat face catastrophe, a rights group said on Tuesday, as fighting flared in another militant-plagued region.
The offensive in the Taliban bastion of Swat, about 120 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, is the military’s most concerted effort to roll back a spreading Taliban insurgency that has thrown the nuclear-armed country’s future into question.
The offensive has sparked an exodus of 2.3 million people, according to provincial government figures, but about 200,000 people are believed to be still in the valley.
Severe shortages of food, water and medicine were creating a major humanitarian crisis for the trapped civilians, the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch said.
“People trapped in the Swat conflict zone face a humanitarian catastrophe unless the Pakistani military immediately lifts a curfew that has been in place continuously for the last week,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement.
The army launched the offensive this month after the militants, emboldened by a controversial peace deal in Swat, pushed out of the former tourist valley into neighboring districts, including one just 100 km (60 miles) from Islamabad.
The United States, which needs Pakistani action against militants in its northwest to defeat al Qaeda and disrupt support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, had criticized the pact as tantamount to “abdicating” to the militants.
The United States, which is pouring thousands of extra troops into Afghanistan to try to reverse Taliban gains, has welcomed the army’s bid to clear Swat.
But the flight of so many civilians poses not only a major burden for an economy being kept afloat by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan, but could also undercut public backing for the military action.
Human Rights Watch said it was getting persistent reports of civilian casualties from army shelling and air attacks, as well as reports of summary executions of civilians by Taliban.
The government should take all possible measures including air drops of food, water, and medicine to alleviate the suffering and both sides should allow a humanitarian corridor through which civilians could escape and aid groups could help, it said.
Military spokesmen were not available for comment.
“READY FOR SOUTH WAZIRISTAN”
In the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, army helicopter gunships attacked Taliban positions, killing six militants, intelligence officials and residents said.
Speculation has been mounting that the army would soon turn its attention to South Waziristan, the headquarters of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and a major base area for his Afghan Taliban allies battling Western forces in Afghanistan.
South Waziristan has been a militant hub for years and the United States and Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government have long pressed Pakistan to root out militants from border strongholds.
Frustrated by Pakistani inaction, the United States has been attacking militants in both South and North Waziristan with missile-firing drone aircraft.
Tension has been building in South Waziristan since President Asif Ali Zardari told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper just over a week ago that the military would move against militants in Waziristan after clearing Swat.
Although Zardari is reported to have later denied that, military officials say an all-out offensive against militants in South Waziristan looks inevitable.
“We’re ready for an operation in South Waziristan. Now it’s just a matter of time,” a senior intelligence official said. With tension rising, about 10,000 people have fled from South Waziristan in recent days, a senior government official said.
Separately, gunmen killed three policemen in bid to free four foreign women detained last week over suspected links with militants.
The women, who police said appeared to be Afghan or Uzbek, managed to flee when gunmen attacked police at the house where they were being held 30 km (20 miles) northwest of Islamabad, but they were detained again, said police officer Fazal Khan.
The violence has worried stock market investors and the main index has dipped over the past couple of weeks. It was marginally lower at 7,166.59 points at 0933 GMT in afternoon trade.