Fighting in Pakistan's Swat triggers civilian exodus

MINGORA, Pakistan Mon Feb 2, 2009 5:49pm IST

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MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Caught between the Pakistani military and their Taliban militant foes, thousands of civilians are fleeing from fighting in northwest Pakistan's Swat valley.

"We have been punished for no fault of our own," said a man, Ikramullah, trudging along a mountain path with his family and about 100 other villagers laden with children and bundles of belongings on Monday.

A tearful Ikramullah said seven of his relatives had been killed on Sunday when his village of Chalis Palow in the valley's Charbagh district, was shelled.

He said he was taking his family to stay with relatives in the Mardan region of North West Frontier Province.

Another man from Charbagh, Samiullah, 36, said most people had left his village and there was no one left to offer funeral prayers for those killed in the fighting.

People were burying their relatives in the yards of their homes, Samiullah said.

The scenic Swat valley, only 130 km northwest of the capital, Islamabad, was until recently one of Pakistan's prime tourist destinations.

Now the valley is on the front line of the country's struggle against Islamist militancy and has become a test of the government's resolve to check the spread of the Taliban.

Militants from Taliban and al Qaeda enclaves on the Afghan border infiltrated into the valley to support a radical cleric, Mullah Fazlullah, and began batting the security forces in 2007.

The fighting in the valley intensified sharply after the military assaulted a radical mosque complex in Islamabad in July 2007, killing more than 100 people.

The militants now control most of the valley, residents say.

"ANGRY AND DISAPPOINTED"

As well as attacking the security forces, the militants have killed scores of opponents, banned girls from classes and destroyed about 180 schools while broadcasting edicts and threats over their illegal FM radio.

Critics say the government has dithered in the face of the Taliban challenge. But fighting has intensified since army chief General Ashfaq Kayani visited the valley last week, vowing to reimpose government control.

The military said on Sunday 16 militants had been killed in the latest clashes. But residents said about 40 civilians had also perished, many in shelling and air attacks by government forces aimed at the militants.

The government says 1,200 civilians have been killed and about 2,000 wounded in violence in Swat since 2007, with most victims of militant suicide bombings, targetted killings by the Taliban, or in security force attacks on militant strongholds.

The government says the military is doing its utmost to avoid so-called collateral damage although critics say the military's use of artillery and helicopter gunships is bound to cause civilian casualties.

Government officials blame the militants for using villagers as human shields.

"Thousands of people are migrating from the areas of fighting because of the military operations and the militants' use of civilians as human shields," the valley's top administrator, Shaukat Khan Yousafzai, told Reuters.

"One of my officials said his village has a population of 25,000 people and almost 80 percent had left ... People are angry and disappointed," he said.

The people leaving Swat are joining several hundred thousand other villagers who have fled fighting elsewhere in the northwest, in particular the Bajaur region on the Afghan border.

(Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony)

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