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Pakistan's 2 Million Displaced Start Returning Home

Pakistani refugees preparing to go back to Swat at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar
JALOZAI CAMP, Pakistan (Reuters) -- The Pakistani government began sending home on July 13 about 2 million people displaced two months ago by the army's assault on Taliban militants in the Swat Valley.

The army says it has pushed the Taliban out of their former bastion northwest of Islamabad, and the government is keen to move the displaced back to their homes.

The Swat exodus was one of the biggest human migrations of recent times, stretching Pakistan's resources to the breaking point and prompting a global appeal for humanitarian help.

The army launched the offensive in late April after militants took over a district just 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Islamabad, raising fears for U.S. ally Pakistan's stability and the safety of its nuclear weapons.

The army says more than 1,700 militants were killed in the fighting -- independent casualty estimates are unavailable -- but none of their leaders were among the casualties, leading to fears the fighters could re-emerge.

In the dusty tent camp of Jalozai, already baking hot in the early morning sun, buses and trucks were lined up on July 13 to take a first batch of people back to their homes.

"Thank God we're going back," said farmer Qaiser Khan.

"I don't know who's right and who's wrong. We want peace and if there are terrorists, miscreants, they should be eliminated once and for all," Khan said.

Most of the displaced people moved in with family or friends but nearly 300,000 were settled in tent camps.

Their plight is a sensitive issue for the government, which could see support for its more than two-month drive against the Taliban eroded if they are seen to be suffering unduly.

Fawad Ali, a 30-year-old barber, was loading his belongings, including donated bags of flour and lentils, onto the back of a truck as his family waited nearby.

Gone For Good?

He said he hoped the Taliban had gone for good.

"We're pinning our hopes on the government's efforts because we're jobless. They banned our business," Ali said, referring to a Taliban ban on barbers cutting men's hair.

"Hopefully, things will be different and I can feed my family," Ali said.

Chief minister of the North West Frontier Province Amir Haider Khan Hoti told a group of people going home the Taliban would be finished off.

"We will confront these elements, we will confront them together.... I assure you that in this war of survival for Pakistan we, and you, will win," Hoti said.

Signs on the ground offered a mixed picture of how successful their return might be.

Reporters who have visited the Swat's main town say there was some damage to homes in the fighting, but not much. Many of the displaced have lost their crops, however, and will need support for many months, aid workers say.

"I'm not sure whether my house is there or has been destroyed, but still I want to go back because it's my home," said Abdul Khaliq Khan, heading back to his village from Jalozai.

Security was tight on the road back to Swat, with soldiers only letting people on government buses through a checkpoint. Many people heading back on their own had to park by the road and wait while identity checks were made.

The government-appointed chief of Jalozai camp said no one was being forced to go home and the 108 families due to leave the camp on July 13 were all going voluntarily, a central concern of the United Nations.

"It'll pick up once they get back there and contact people here to tell them about the situation," said the camp leader, Tahir Orakzai.

"They have been living in hell here. They're not used to such weather," he said, referring to the sweltering temperatures in the lowland compared with the cooler climate in the higher-altitude Swat valley. "They're desperate to return."