- Afghanistan - Pakistan - Taliban - USA
AFP - Pakistani attack helicopters and war planes pounded suspected Taliban hideouts Thursday, as thousands of people fled the deadliest fighting to erupt in the northwest district of Swat in months.
Aid workers warned that the humanitarian crisis was escalating in the area after families streamed out of the Taliban militant stronghold on foot or crammed into cars weighed down with provisions and household possessions.
"A mortar shell hit the outer wall of my house last night. Luckily, we survived. I feel God has given me an opportunity I can't miss. I'm leaving. Swat is not worth living in," Nasir Jamal, a medical shop owner, told AFP.
Security forces targeted militants holed up in Malam Jabba, Matta and Khawaza Khela of Swat, one day after 37 rebels were killed in the deadliest fighting to rock the area since a peace deal was reached in February.
The agreement between the government and the Taliban to allow sharia law in Swat was supposed to end the bloodshed after a nearly two-year violent Taliban uprising.
"If there is no peace, there is no deal as it is directly linked to the restoration of peace," foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told reporters.
A military official in the northwest said troops were ordered to target militant hideouts and establish the writ of the government "at any cost" as the peace deal unravelled.
Pakistan is under US pressure to crush militants, who Washington has called the biggest terror threat to the West and US President Barack Obama has put the nuclear-armed Muslim country at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda.
Obama hosted a summit with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai in Washington on Wednesday to cement a sweeping new US strategy to crush Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants in the region.
"Thousands of people are emptying the area," a senior administration official told AFP from Swat in reference to residents leaving Mingora, the main town, and the old Swat capital, Saidu Sharif.
Residents said they were suffering from both the military bombardment by government forces and the guerrilla tactics of the Taliban, who have terrorised the population in Swat by kidnapping and killing those who oppose them.
"Civilians are suffering at the hands of both the army and the Taliban. The Taliban are killing residents who don't side with
them," said the shop owner Jamal.
Meanwhile, a son of the pro-Taliban cleric who signed the February agreement was killed when fighter jets bombarded an area in Lower Dir, a district adjacent to Swat, a spokesman for the cleric said.
Maulana Kifayatullah, 50, the eldest of Sufi Mohammad's 12 sons, was killed and his brother-in-law suffered leg wounds, Ameer Izzat Khan told AFP.
A military official confirmed that jets raided suspected hideouts in Lower Dir, where the military announced last month that an offensive against advancing armed Taliban had been won.
In the same district overnight, fighters attacked a paramilitary checkpoint and kidnapped 10 soldiers after heavy gunbattles, said local police official Falak Naz.
Analysts said Pakistan might stand by its February decision to grant three million people in the northwest sharia law, but a short-lived ceasefire was over.
"The militants are occupying government buildings and security forces are taking action against them, so where is the peace deal?" political analyst Shafqat Mahmood told AFP.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned Thursday that a humanitarian crisis was escalating in the northwest, where the government has said up to half a million people could flee Swat.
"The humanitarian crisis in NWFP (North West Frontier Province) is intensifying," the ICRC said, adding it no longer had access to the areas most affected by the conflict and that statistics were so far unverifiable.
"The ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society are currently marshalling their resources to be able to provide 120,000 internally displaced people affected by the fighting with food and essential relief items," it said.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan has claimed that his fighters control "more than 90 percent" of Swat.