Peshawar: More than 100,000 civilians were expected to flee Pakistan’s battle-torn northwest Sunday, after the government eased a curfew so people could escape a military onslaught against the Taliban.
Aid agencies fear a humanitarian disaster as security forces pound insurgent hideouts in the scenic Swat valley, a former ski-resort northwest of Islamabad torn apart by a two-year insurgency by the Islamist hardliners.
Up to 500,000 desperate people are already believed to have left their homes in Swat and nearby Lower Dir and Buner districts, the United Nations refugee agency has said, crowding into hastily-set up camps.
With the government unable to provide transport for the panicked diaspora, witnesses said people were grabbing what they could and streaming into thousands of vehicles or setting off on foot with their meagre belongings.
The easing of the curfew began at 6:00am (0000 GMT) in Swat and Malakand, and has been extended to 3:00pm because of the numbers trying to flee, a military official said.
“We expect more than 100,000 people will quit their homes at different places in Swat today,” local administration chief Khushhal Khan told AFP.
The government has said it was bracing to cope with half a million people displaced by the fighting.
Information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain on Saturday appealed to the international community to help Pakistan cope with the flood of refugees.
“The situation at the camps is very worrisome because the weather is hot and people are facing many difficulties,” Hussain told a news conference. “It is very difficult to control sentiments while seeing children crying in the camp,” he added.
Thousands of Pakistani troops backed by warplanes and helicopter gunships are involved in the massive operation against Taliban and extremist fighters in the area, where jet fighters were pounding suspected rebel hideouts.
Khan said the government had made no arrangements for the transportation of the more than 100,000 civilians expected to flee Sunday, but had set up five more camps in North West Frontier Province where the displaced will be lodged.
Pakistani security forces mounted operations across three districts late last month after the hardline Taliban advanced to within 100 kilometres of Islamabad, despite a February ceasefire with the rebels.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said on Saturday that the army would minimise civilian casualties while the government would look after the displaced, but people streaming out of the area say homes have been hit with many killed.
Pakistan’s military says they have killed nearly 200 militants since Friday, although the death tolls could not be confirmed independently because of the ongoing military operation.
The fighting has sunk the controversial February deal between the government and an Islamist hardliner that aimed to put three million people under sharia law in a bid to end the Taliban uprising.
Critics in Washington said the deal emboldened the Taliban and have welcomed the renewed military offensive, which also has broad public support.