ISLAMABAD: Pakistani commandos dropped into a Taliban stronghold in Swat Valley yesterday, stepping up a punishing offensive against militants that has now displaced more than half a million people.
Terrified civilians have been streaming out of the three battle-torn northwest districts, with the UN refugee agency saying that 501,496 stranded people had registered with authorities since May 2.
A senior military official overseeing help for the displaced said an estimated 800,000 civilians had fled from the latest fighting. They were joining about 500,000 displaced by earlier fighting in the northwest, said Brig. Aamir Raza Qureshi.
Troops have opened up a new front in the district’s northern mountains, the suspected stronghold of firebrand Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah and his top lieutenants behind a nearly two-year uprising that has devastated the area.
Attack helicopters also shelled suspected Taliban hide-outs in Malam Jabba, once popular for its pristine ski slopes, a military official said. “So far 751 militants have been killed in operations at Lower Dir, Buner and Swat,” said Abbas. Of those, 402 have been killed in Swat.
The scale of the humanitarian crisis gripping Pakistan became clearer yesterday, with the number of registered displaced jumping from just over 360,000 late Sunday to half a million, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said.
“This is only a portion of people who would have fled,” said Ariane Rummery, UNHCR spokeswoman in Pakistan, attributing the leap in those fleeing to a brief lifting of a curfew in Swat district on Sunday. The new refugees join another 500,000 civilians who fled bouts of fighting in Pakistan’s troubled North West Frontier Province last year.
The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) said it was doubling its shipments of emergency food to the newly displaced, but warned that more funds were needed to feed the stranded over the next two to three months.