Ceasefire ends

Half a million set to flee Swat valley

A human tide of up to 500,000 people could pour out of Pakistan’s troubled Swat valley after officials told residents to flee as a controversial peace deal with the Taliban appeared finally to fall apart.

As clashes intensified between government troops and Taliban fighters - effectively marking an end to the three-month ceasefire - officials told residents in Swat’s main town, Mingora, that they should leave. Last night, thousands were said to be on the move, adding to countless others who have already been forced from their homes in north-west Pakistan in recent weeks. The development comes as Barack Obama is tomorrow due to meet with leaders Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai to discuss America’s new "Af-Pak" policy.

With so many people fleeing their homes, aid organisations said they were scrambling to set up extra camps for the anticipated flood. The government also said it was rushing to provide facilities ahead of what might be a new military operation in Mingora.

"Naturally, we are very concerned about these displaced people," said Ariane Rummery, an Islamabad-based spokeswoman for UNHCR. "Already we have been looking after 550,000 people who have been forced from their homes by conflict since last August. Last week another 20,000 people came out of Buner and Lower Dir."

Bewildered and frightened residents are leaving because of the threat from both the Taliban and because of the military operation to drive the militants from several locations little more than 60 miles from Islamabad that was launched last week. The military operation underlined growing concern within Pakistan about the increasing spread of the Taliban and of the failure of February’s ceasefire to bring stability.

The deal in Swat, combining as it did an agreement to enact Sharia law in the valley in exchange for a ceasefire, was controversial from the start, both in Pakistan and internationally. Many believed it was only a matter of time before the Taliban rescinded on their undertakings. That moment appeared to come last month when, encouraged by their success in Swat and by the fact they had not been forced to lay down their arms as the deal stipulated, they swept into the neighbouring district of Buner.

Under considerable international pressure and with the meeting with Mr Obama looming, Mr Zadari and the Pakistani military launched what they described as a major offensive to drive the Taliban from Buner. The military said dozens of fighters had been killed, though it has been impossible to verify such claims.

What is easier to measure is the surge of displaced people fleeing from the fighting - a surge that is likely to grow after officials said they were lifting a curfew in Mingora so that people could leave. Senior official Khushal Khan said Taliban fighters had been seen roaming the area and laying mines and that people should move to a temporary camp established in the nearby town of Dargai. That order was later rescinded but reports said people were already leaving. Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), said up to 500,000 people were expected to flee the valley and that a total of six new refugee camps were being readied.

"We are leaving the area to save our lives," Sayed Iqbal, a 35-year-old cloth merchant who was putting household goods in a pickup truck already loaded with his family, told the Associated Press. "The government has announced people should leave the area. What is there left to say?"

Last night, with black-turbaned Taliban reportedly on the main roads in Mingora, a Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, said the peace deal had "been dead" since the military last week launched its operation in Buner. "Everything will be OK once our rulers stop bowing before America," he added.

As Mr Obama prepares to outline his regional strategy to Mr Zardari and Mr Karzai, Washington has also been seeking fresh assurances about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Previously it had always been considered the weapons were safely in the control of the country’s military leadership, but as militants have moved ever closer to Islamabad, concern has grown in Washington. This may reflect that Washington does not know the location of all of Pakistan’s weapons. Yesterday it was reported that US officials may already be in behind-the-scenes talks with their counterparts about helping Pakistan safeguard its nuclear stockpile.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Recruitment Genius: Factory Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer ba...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003