- human rights - Pakistan - Swat valley - Taliban
AFP - A US-based rights group on Tuesday blamed Taliban militants using "human shields" and Pakistan military strikes for causing a high loss of civilian life during fighting in the northwest.
"Pakistani forces appeared to have taken insufficient precautionary measures in aerial and artillery attacks that have caused a high loss of civilian life," said the New York-based watchdog.
The group urged Taliban militants -- who have fought to impose sharia law in Swat for nearly two years and last month advanced further towards the Pakistani capital, precipitating the offensive -- to allow civilians to escape.
"The Taliban's use of landmines and human shields is a sorry addition to their long list of abuses in the Swat valley," HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.
"They urgently need to let civilians leave areas of fighting."
HRW said that even after Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Kayani issued "appropriate instructions" to minimise collateral damage, it received "several accounts of high civilian casualties in Pakistan military attacks".
On May 8, 35 people, including 14 children and four women, were killed when army mortar shells and missiles struck the Shahdra and Wathke neighbourhoods of Mingora, the rights group said.
"Reportedly none of those killed were Taliban fighters," it said.
Quoting witnesses, the group said at least three women and eight children were killed in air strikes against the Swat town of Matta on May 11.
With the area a closed military zone, from which journalists and human rights monitors are barred from entering, HRW said it was impossible to independently verify the information.
Pakistan has been pressing a furious offensive in the northwest districts of Swat, Buner and Lower Dir in what the government has hailed a fight to "eliminate" Taliban militants from the area.
The UN refugee agency said 1.45 million people have registered as displaced since May 2, pushing to more than two million the number of people forced to flee fighting in northwestern Pakistan since last August.
HRW cited residents as saying that fewer than 10,000 civilians remain in Mingora, where Taliban forces have prevented many from leaving, while others are too infirm or poor, or are unwilling to leave.