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Swat Braces For Key Battle As Displacement Crisis Peaks

A convoy of local residents travels past wreckage as they flee the area of military operations against Taliban militants in the Naway Kalay area of Swat Valley on May 15.
In a move seen as a prelude to a bloody urban battle against Taliban militants ensconced in Swat's regional capital, Mingora, Pakistani authorities have temporarily lifted a government curfew to allow civilians to flee to safety.

Aid agencies and authorities have already registered nearly 900,000 internally displaced persons who have fled to the Mardan and Swabi districts of the neighboring Peshawar valley since the beginning of this month.

Refugees are also moving farther east into Pakistan's thriving capital, Islamabad.

"On the morning of the 5th [of May], we were having breakfast when suddenly a mortar shell fell on the neighbor's house," displaced baker Fazal Ali says to describe the horror that prompted his flight from Swat. "Three women were cut in half. We immediately ran away with just the clothes on our backs and came here."

The massive numbers of internally displaced are compounding the challenge Pakistan already faces in caring for people ousted from their homeland as a result of violence. Nearly 1.5 million ethnic Pashtuns have been displaced and settled in the region in the past five years.

Now, in addition to the nearly 1 million who have been registered as displaced as a result of the military effort against the Taliban, aid agencies expect that number to grow by hundreds of thousands if the fighting continues.

So far, only 80,000 newly displaced have taken shelter in new camps established by government and aid agencies. The extraordinary generosity exhibited by locals in Peshawar Valley, who have provided food and shelter for those who have fled to the region, has been cited as helping alleviate the crisis.

However, after visiting a displacement camp in Swabi on May 14, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that the crisis could assume "dramatic" proportions if international assistance fails to arrive in time.

"What I'm concerned [about] is that if there's not a positive humanitarian response by the international community supporting the Pakistani people, then this of course will contribute to making the situation in the country much more dramatic in all aspects," Guterres said.

Urban Threat

Adding to concerns is the prospect of increased civilian casualties as the fighting enters urban areas, such as Mingora.

The May 15 curfew relaxation was aimed at extracting the maximum number of civilians from Mingora as the Pakistani military encircled the city. Some 150,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in Mingora.

General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, head of the Pakistani military, is expected to brief leaders of major Pakistani political parties on the military's operation on May 15.

Speaking to journalists in Islamabad on May 14, Pakistani military spokesman Major-General Athar Abass said the safety of civilians and care for displace persons is being taken seriously.

"The operation is progressing well," Abass said. "We do understand that the management of IDP [internally displaced persons], as said by the chief of army staff, is as important as the military operation in Swat. And the special support group provided by the Pakistan army is making all-out efforts to manage the problems of IDPs in support of the government."

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, meanwhile, has called a national conference of all political parties on May 18 in order to preserve the current and unprecedented public support for the military operations.

What Next?

A quick victory over the Taliban, allowing the displaced to return to their homes as soon as possible, is seen as key to the effort.

Octogenarian Pashtun nationalist leader Afzal Khan Lala is known for his resistance to the Taliban in Swat.

Now recovering from a prostate surgery in Islamabad, he refused to leave his village in Swat despite losing many of his family members to the extremists over the past two years.

He told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the ferocity of the ongoing military operation in Swat has given people hope that peace will soon be restored to their embattled valley.

"The ongoing military operation has given people hope because [this military operation] is different from the past -- it is restoring people's confidence [in their government and the army]," Lala said. "In my opinion, if the operation moves forward the same way, it will not take months to [restore peace to Swat]."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.