Curfew relaxed in Swat Valley


Pakistan's military ordered people out of parts of the Swat valley today, temporarily relaxing a curfew to enable civilians to flee an intensifying offensive against Taliban militants.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan hopes to stop a growing Taliban insurgency with its offensive in the former tourist valley 130km (80 miles) from Islamabad after US criticism that the government was failing to act against the Islamist militants.

Up to 200 militants had been killed in Swat and the neighbouring Shangla district in the past 24 hours, the military said. The figure could not be independently confirmed.

About 200,000 people have left Swat in recent days and in all about 500,000 are expected to flee. They join 555,000 people displaced earlier from Swat and other areas because of fighting since August.

"Everybody wants to get out of this hell," Zubair Khan, a resident of Mingora, the valley's main town, said by telephone.

"Some are driving out while many are just on foot. They don't know where they're heading but staying here just means death."

The army went on a full-scale offensive on Thursday after the government ordered troops to flush out militants from the Taliban stronghold.

The offensive was launched while President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was in Washington assuring a nervous United States his government was committed to fighting militancy.

Most political parties and many members of the public support the offensive, although that could change if the displaced are seen to be suffering unduly or if many civilians are killed.

Fighting had intensified two days before the offensive was launched, triggering a civilian exodus as a February peace pact collapsed, but concern has been growing for those trapped and unable to move because of the curfew.

Helicopters and warplanes targeted militant hideouts in Mingora and other areas in Swat and Shangla today, the military said. Two soldiers had died, it said.

"It's a tough battle," said the military spokesman, Nasir Khan. "They're operating in small groups. They don't fight a pitched battle but we're closing in on them, squeezing them and have cut their supply lines," he said.

The Taliban had also planted bombs along roads and in Mingora to inflict civilian casualties and then put the blame on security forces, the military said.

Taliban spokesmen were not available for comment.

The army ordered civilians out of four districts to clear the way for attacks on militants and lifted a curfew for nine hours from 6am (0000 GMT). Residents said transport was scarce because the military was not letting vehicles into the valley.

Vehicles had been stopped coming in to the valley because the military feared the militants might try to send in reinforcements, Mr Khan said.

Vehicle operators were demanding ever higher fares, residents said. "How can I take my kids, wife and old mother to a safer place? Nobody thinks of humanity, money is their religion," said teacher Mohammad Shahnawaz said.

The World Vision aid group said high temperatures, insufficient toilets and a lack of electricity made conditions in camps "intolerable" despite the efforts of the authorities and aid agencies.

"We may not be able to meet the most basic needs of the refugees as quickly as they are arriving in the camps if it continues at this pace," Jeff Hall, a deputy director for World Vision, said in a statement.

The exodus puts an extra burden on an economy propped up by a $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan, while the fighting has unnerved investors in Pakistani stocks.

But the chairman of the government disaster authority, Farooq Ahmed Khan, said facilities would be provided quickly.

Mr Khan said 185,000 displaced people from the Swat area had been registered, with 37,000 in camps and the remainder staying with relatives, friends or in rented accommodation.

"Overall, the government of Pakistan is geared up to meet this challenge," Khan told Dawn TV.

"We have met challenges far more serious than this."