Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pakistanis told to flee Swat valley

The following is from Al Jazeera:

A senior Pakistani government official has urged residents of the Swat valley to flee the troubled region in the northwest where a peace deal with Taliban appears to be crumbling amid intense fighting.

Khushal Khan also said that the authorities in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) had issued an appeal for help to house tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting between government troops and Taliban fighters in Buner.

Khan said on Tuesday that people should flee for their own safety because Taliban fighters were roaming the area and planting mines and that security forces might be forced to retaliate.

His call came as the Taliban warned the peace deal agreed by the government and Taliban fighters was close to collapse.

Muslim Khan, the Pakistani Taliban's spokesman in neighbouring Swat, accused the government and the army of being stooges of the US.

"They keep violating every agreement and if this goes on, definitely there will be no deal, no ceasefire," Khan said.

"This is not our army, this is not our government. They're worse enemies of Muslims than the Americans. They're US stooges and now it's clear that either we'll be martyred or we'll march forward."

Meanwhile, fighting has continued in Buner between troops and Taliban fighters.

Renewed fighting has virtually derailed the government's February deal with the Taliban that allows them to enforce sharia, or Islamic law, across Malakand division - comprising both Swat and Buner - in exchange for peace.

Sohail Rahman, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Islamabad, said it was a "pretty dire situation".

He said the people had no where to go and the government and its agencies were not telling them in which direction to move.

"The social development minister spoke to us [journalists] a little while ago and she was appealing to aid agencies to try and help those people who were leaving the Swat area and Buner with accommodation," Rahman reported.

"People are leaving with literally clothes on their backs and what few possessions they can carry heading to areas where a maksehift camp has been established."

Sharia deal

The February pact had alarmed US officials who worry that Swat will turn into a haven for fighters near Afghanistan, where US and Nato troops are also battling the Taliban.

US officials have also accused the Pakistani government of "abdicating" to the Taliban.

Asif Ali Zadari, Pakistan's president, will be meeting Barack Obama, his US counterpart, in Washington on Wednesday and he is expected to ask him for more support in the fight against the Taliban.

But also on the agenda will be Washington's concern about the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and America's fear that it is losing the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

On Saturday, the NWFP government announced the formation of an Islamic appeal court, or "Dar-ul-Qaza", saying that the court's establishment would put the onus on the fighters to lay down their weapons.

The creation of the court was among the demands made by Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi, a group led by Sufi Muhammad, an influential local religious leader who mediated the deal between the government and the Taliban.

'Agreement in tatters'

But it has done little to stop the violence. On Sunday, two government workers were killed by suspected Taliban fighters.

"There has been a war of words since the announcement ... by provincial government that they were going to implement an Islamic court as per agreement ... and the Taliban factions, led by Sufi Muhammad, [complained they] were not contacted," said Rahman.

"The agreement is in tatters. If the Taliban is out on the streets you can say those agreements are dead and buried.

"There is now more pressure on the military to go in and clean it up if they can," he said.


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