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Holbrooke To Visit Pakistan, Focus Is Refugees

Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has said he will visit Pakistan this week to assess relief efforts to help the estimated 2 million people who have fled a Pakistani offensive against the Taliban and said more may become homeless if the conflict widens.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan a month ago launched a campaign against a growing Taliban insurgency in the picturesque Swat Valley, a former tourist spot 120 kilometers northwest of Islamabad.

The offensive, which the United States has welcomed, has triggered a mass exodus that, if it turns into a protracted humanitarian crisis, could undermine Pakistani public support for the fight against the Islamist militants.

A U.S. official who spoke on condition that he not be named said Holbrooke was expected to discuss the development of a wider counterinsurgency strategy, beyond the military push, for winning over the population in Taliban-influenced areas.

While some of these issues may come up, Holbrooke said they were not the focus of his June 3-5 visit, which he said was to show U.S. support, to examine the relief effort and to see what else Washington could do to help.

On May 19, the United States offered $110 million in aid for the displaced people.

"The president and the secretary of state instructed me to go to the refugee camps, as close to the zone of conflict as possible, to show American commitment to helping Pakistan in its moment of challenge, to get a first-hand assessment and report back to them, and to see what additional support we can offer," he said in an interview.

"I am going to talk about the potential for more refugees in Waziristan and Baluchistan in light of the possibility of the battle zone widening," he added. "[There are] many things that will come up in the natural course of discussions...but the purpose of the trip is to focus on refugees."

Surging violence across Pakistan and the spread of Taliban influence through its northwest are reviving concerns about the stability of the country, an important U.S. ally vital to efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.

The United States wants Pakistani action against the militants to help defeat Al-Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and to disrupt support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military on May 30 said it had regained control of Mingora, Swat's main town. Military officials have said that once Swat was secured, an offensive was likely in South Waziristan, an Al-Qaeda and Taliban stronghold.

U.S. officials want Pakistan to craft a counterinsurgency strategy that includes political, economic and other aspects to complement the military offensive and to win popular support.