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Pakistan Expels Afghan Refugees From Battle Zone

A family, displaced from Bajaur, in temporary shelter on the outskirts of Peshawar

A family, displaced from Bajaur, in temporary shelter on the outskirts of Peshawar

KHAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani authorities have begun expelling Afghan refugees from a tribal region that has become the main battleground between troops and fighters linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, officials said.

"They have to go. There will be no concession," Safirullah Wazir, the government's top administrator in Bajaur, told Reuters.

"We have reports of their links with militants and their involvement in terrorist activities."

Troops, backed by fighter planes and helicopter gunships, have killed more than 1,000 fighters in the Bajaur region since early August.

A Pakistani general last month described Bajaur as a new "center of gravity" for militancy and said that if the security forces prevailed two-thirds of the militant problem in the region could be eradicated.

Afghan refugees were ordered on October 2 to leave the area within days or face a crackdown.

Around 200 Afghans from 30 families had left so far, but Wazir said 30,000 remained in the region.

Residents said those leaving were mainly choosing to move to neighboring tribal regions rather than return to Afghanistan.

Afghans settled in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal lands during the 1980s and 1990s to escape the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war in the their homeland.

Many Afghans criticized the government for uprooting them.

"We aren't Taliban. It's cruelty the way we're being sent," said Abdul Khaliq, an Afghan cloth merchant in Khar.

"How do I wind up my business?"

Some tribesmen, however, were glad to see the back of the Afghans.

"They should have taken this step long before because whenever we tried to take action against militants these refugees supported them and sheltered them," gray-bearded Mohammad Sher, a tribal elder, told Reuters in Khar, the main town in Bajaur.

Violence has surged in Pakistan in the last year, and militancy has spread over most parts of Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

On the night of October 5, militants fired two rockets at the residence of the chief minister of NWFP, two days after the head of his anti-Taliban ethnic-Pashtun nationalist party escaped a suicide attack.

Pakistan is under mounting pressure from the United States to do more to crush militants in the tribal regions.

Frustrated by the relentless Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, U.S. forces have carried out eight missile strikes and one ground assault on militants in Pakistan since the start of last month.

On October 3, a pilotless drone aircraft launched a missile attack on a pro-Taliban militant's house in the North Waziristan tribal region, killing 20 people, including Arab fighters.