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Asia-pacific

Thousands flee Swat as Zardari, Obama seek out new strategies

Video by Yuka ROYER

Text by Khatya CHHOR

Latest update : 2009-05-07

Tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing new fighting in Pakistan’s Swat valley as a deal establishing sharia law in exchange for peace unravels. The clashes come as Pakistani, Afghan and US leaders meet in Washington.

Pakistani officials say more than 40,000 people have fled the country’s north-western Swat valley amid fears that a government peace deal with the Taliban is on the verge of collapse.

Panic swept through Swat’s main town of Mingora on Tuesday after the government issued an order to evacuate, prompting fears of an imminent new offensive against the militants as new fighting erupted throughout the valley.

"More than 40,000 have migrated from Mingora since Tuesday afternoon," Khushhal Khan, the chief administrative official in Swat, told Agence France-Presse.
   
People packed into hundreds of cars and were fleeing the town, although the evacuation order was later withdrawn. The government is preparing to shelter an estimated 500,000 people who could soon be fleeing the fighting in Swat.

“We clearly have a new humanitarian crisis on our hands,” said Sebastien Brak, an Islamabad-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Clashes between army forces and the militants continued overnight as the Taliban secured its hold on Mingora, 130 kilometres from Islamabad. The Taliban occupied several government buildings as Pakistani security forces tried to evict them from the town.

A crumbling accord

The latest exodus comes as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari meets Wednesday with US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington to discuss coordinated strategies for defeating militancy in the region.

Zardari has come under fire in recent weeks for a February peace deal that conceded to Taliban calls for the establishment of sharia law in Malakand, a district with a population of some three million that includes the Swat valley, in exchange for a cessation of hostilities. The agreement began to unravel late last month when the Taliban entered the Lower Dir and Buner districts, some 100 kilometres from Islamabad, prompting a massive government offensive to rout them.

 

The Taliban blames the government for failing to implement sharia law as agreed in February, says Stephen Kloss, FRANCE 24’s Islamabad correspondent. For its part, Islamabad says the militants have weakened the agreement by repeatedly breaching the ceasefire.

 

“The blame game is in full swing here,” says Kloss.

 

Officially, however, both government and Taliban representatives insisted on Wednesday that the deal remains in place.

 

In Senate testimony last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the agreement with the Taliban amounted to a concession and warned that rising militancy posed an “existential threat” to Pakistan’s government. Clinton will also meet Wednesday with the Pakistani and Afghan leaders amid mounting US concern over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

The United States has recently unveiled a shifting strategy in the region that includes a greater emphasis on development. Obama called this week for an additional $1.5 billion per year over the next five years, primarily for civilian projects like schools, roads and hospitals.

Date created : 2009-05-06

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