Pakistan braces for flood of displaced from Swat
MARDAN, Pakistan |
MARDAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan is bracing for its biggest ever displacement of people, as many as 800,000, as a military offensive against Taliban militants in their stronghold in the Swat valley appears imminent.
Expanding Taliban influence in nuclear-armed Pakistan has spread alarm at home and abroad and will be a core issue when U.S. President Barack Obama meets his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts in Washington later on Wednesday.
Convoys of military vehicles carrying troops and artillery were seen heading towards Swat as authorities in Mardan, the second biggest city in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), search for sites for camps for people uprooted by fighting.
"Initially, we were estimating that 100,000 to 200,000 people would leave their homes but now we are expecting displacement of 600,000 to 800,000," Khalid Khan Umerzai, commissioner of the Mardan division in NWFP, told Reuters on Wednesday.
"This will be the biggest displacement of Pakistanis since independence," he said, adding about 1.6 million people live in Swat.
In February, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated up to 600,000 people could be uprooted because of fighting in Pakistan's northwest.
Mardan division is the main staging point for people fleeing the fighting in Malakand where Swat is located, and the government has set up three camps for the uprooted people and is opening three more.
A February peace pact aimed at ending Taliban violence in Swat is in tatters and thousands of people fled from Mingora, the region's main town, on Tuesday after a government official said fighting was expected.
Umerzai said 35,000 people had been registered in the three camps but only a handful of them were living there as most had found shelter with relatives in Mardan and elsewhere. Many more were unregistered.
"WE ARE RUINED"
"If the conflict lasts longer, then we expect those living outside camps to come to the camps and that will be a huge problem," Umerzai said.
He said the provincial government was short of funds and seeking help from the central government for the growing number of displaced.
On Marden's outskirts, a tent village has been set up with the help of the United Nations and international aid agencies on sprawling ground levelled for construction of a housing complex.
About 350 families are living in tents provided by the UNHCR in the Sheikh Shehzad camp, while a large number of people were lined up outside to get registered.
"I could bring just one blanket and a few clothes for my children with me," said Omar Bacha, a resident of Mingora, who arrived in the camp on Wednesday, as nearby his seven-year-old son cuddled his shirtless younger brother.
"We are ruined," said bearded Behroz Khan. "Taliban are on the ground, helicopters are in the sky, we are caught in between."
At the back of the camp, poor women, some carrying infants in their laps, were sitting on the ground waiting impatiently for their turn to be registered, which would enable them to get free food and other basic supplies.
Food was being cooked in about 20 cauldrons nearby while labourers dug ditches to lay sanitation pipes.
"While we cannot give them the comfort of their home, we will try to make it as easy for them as possible," Fikret Akcura, the top U.N. official in Pakistan, said in a statement.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)
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