Black-turbaned militants roamed city streets and seized buildings in a northwestern Pakistan valley Tuesday as thousands of people fled fighting between the Taliban and troops that the government said could lead to an exodus of half a million people. The Taliban declared the end of their peace deal with the government.
Buses carrying the residents of Mingora, the region’s main town, were crammed inside and out: Refugees clambered onto the roofs after seats and floors filled up. Children and adults alike carried their belongings on their heads and backs – all of them fleeing fighting they fear is about to consume the region.
Pakistan’s leader prepared for talks in Washington with President Barack Obama on how to sharpen his country’s fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which are blamed for attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The deteriorating Swat Valley truce with the Taliban, which American officials opposed from the start, is expected to play a prominent role in the discussions.
Khushal Khan, the top administrator in Swat, said Taliban militants were roaming the area and laying mines.
A witness in Mingora told an Associated Press reporter that black-turbaned militants were deployed on most streets and on high buildings, and security forces were barricaded in their bases. Another reported heavy gunfire for much of the day. Both asked for anonymity out of fear for their life.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the militants were in control of “90 percent” of the valley and said they were responding to army violations of the peace deal – citing attacking insurgents and boosting troop numbers. He accused the government of caving to US pressure.
Pakistan agreed to a truce in the Swat Valley and surrounding districts in February after two years of fighting with militants in the former tourist resort. It formally introduced Islamic law last month in the hope that insurgents would lay down their arms, something they have not done.
Last week, the insurgents moved from the valley into Buner, a district just 100km from the capital, triggering alarm at home and abroad. The army responded with an offensive that it says has killed more than 100 militants, but has yet to evict them.
“Everything will be OK once our rulers stop bowing before America,” Muslim Khan, the Taliban spokesman, told The Associated Press by cell phone, adding the peace deal had “been dead” since the operation in Buner.
Khushal Khan, the Swat official, said curfew was suspended so people could leave Mingora, and a camp was set up for the displaced in a nearby town. Hundreds were leaving, according to an AP reporter in Mingora.
“We are leaving the area to save our lives,” said Sayed Iqbal, a 35-year-old cloth merchant who was putting household goods in a pickup truck already loaded with his elderly parents, wife and two children. “The government has announced people should leave the area. What is there left to say?”
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for the North West Frontier Province, said up to 500,000 people were expected to flee the valley. Hundreds are already gone, adding to roughly half a million people driven from other regions in the northwest over the last year by fighting between soldiers and insurgents, witnesses said.
Hussain said authorities were releasing emergency funds and preparing six new refugee camps to house them.
While an army offensive would be welcomed abroad, it was far from certain the government would be able to dislodge the militants, who have had three months under the peace deal to rest and reinforce their positions.
Pakistan has waged several offensives in the border region in recent years that have often ended inconclusively amid public anger at civilian casualties. The country’s army, trained to fight conventional battles against rival India, is not used to guerrilla warfare.
Washington has called for tougher action, and US officials said Obama would seek assurances from President Asif Ali Zardari that his country’s nuclear arsenal was safe and that the military intended to face down extremists in coordination with Afghanistan and the United States.
Although the administration thinks Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure for now, concern that militants might try to seize one or several of them is acute. The anxieties have heightened amid the Taliban’s recent advances, the officials said.
Pakistan is struggling to thwart an increasingly overlapping spectrum of extremist groups, some of whom have enjoyed official support. Few extremist leaders are ever brought to justice.
Also Tuesday, the High Court in the southern city of Karachi upheld an appeal by two men sentenced to death for the 2002 slayings of 11 French nationals and four other people in a bombing outside the city’s Sheraton Hotel.
The judges said they suspected that the confession of one of the men, Asif Zaheer, was “not voluntary” and that prosecution witnesses had been “set up” by authorities, said state prosecutor Saifullah, who goes by only one name.
Authorities were considering appealing the acquittal, Saifullah said.