New onslaught forces exodus from Swat Valley

500,000 could flee the troubled Pakistani province
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The Independent Online

By bus, by car and on foot, thousands of people continued to pour from the Swat Valley yesterday as the Pakistani military used helicopter gunships and pounding mortar rounds to try to drive out Taliban fighters. Aid officials said they had registered 45,000 people forced from their homes in the last four days but said that number could soon soar. The government has estimated that up to 500,000 people might flood out of the Swat valley ahead of a possible major offensive against the militants.

"It is an all-out war there. Rockets are landing everywhere," Laiq Zada, who fled the danger zone, told the Associated Press. "We have with us the clothes on our bodies and a hope in the house of God. Nothing else." The sharpened military offensive came as Pakistan's leader, Asif Ali Zardari, yesterday met in Washington with Barack Obama and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. Many in Washington will be heartened by the decision by Mr Zardari and the military to take the fight to the militants.

But there are doubts over the military capacity for the operation, and the human costs involved. A drawn-out conflict will only increase the longer-term exodus. Some may feel they would have nothing to return to. "I do not have any destination. I only have an aim – to escape from here," said Afzal Khan, who was waiting for a bus with his wife and nine children. "It is like doomsday here. It is like hell."

Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, said: "Our workers have seen people on foot, on buses and getting into cars. People are on the move."

She said that a series of camps were established for displaced people but that of the 45,000 registered so far, less than 3,000 were living in the tents. The vast majority, she said, had been able to rent accommodation or were staying with family or friends. This was the pattern from the past 12 months of conflict. "The camps are a last resort," she added.

The military offensive follows the collapse of a controversial three-month-old truce in Swat that had been condemned in the West. As part of the deal, Mr Zardari's government agreed to allow the establishment of sharia law courts in the valley. However, the Taliban failed to meet their agreement to lay down their arms.

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