Pakistan offensive against Taliban creates angry refugees

Some 30,000 refugees who fled the Pakistan Army's offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan have yet to receive food or other supplies promised by the government.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A policeman keeps guard over men who fled a military offensive in South Waziristan as they wait to registrater as internally displaced persons in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, on Wednesday.
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Antimilitary feelings are running high among refugees in this town just outside South Waziristan, where more than 100,000 Pakistanis have fled from an Army offensive aimed at destroying the Pakistani Taliban network.

Many bring with them tales of indiscriminate bombings and high civilian casualties. And frustration is rising as the government fails to provide aid to those displaced by the fighting since it began Saturday.

The delay feeds concerns that, unlike during the Army's relatively successful offensive in Swat during the spring, neutral or pro-Taliban leanings among residents of South Waziristan could make it harder to hold onto any gains there. A growing refugee crisis could also undermine the government's battle for hearts and minds.

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"We feel this is a war against our whole tribe," says Aslam Khan, an elderly Mehsud tribesman who arrived from the town of Sararogha two weeks ago and is attempting to register himself and nine members of his family to ensure they are eligible for aid.

Long lines, no aid

Hundreds of men like him show up every morning at the city's five refugee registration points on behalf of their extended families (one man appeared to register 33 relatives). But many are turned away after hours of waiting and told to return the next day by inundated authorities. On Wednesday, fresh registrations were halted due to a shortage of forms.

Not that registration guarantees help: An aid official admits that because of delays in verifying ID cards, none of the 30,000 refugees who registered after the conflict began on Saturday have yet received food, items such as blankets or mosquito nets, or the $60 in monthly benefits promised to them by federal information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira last week.

Despite the influx of refugees, which began as early as August, the government has not prepared any camps in which to house them. North West Frontier Province governor Owais Ghani reiterated his position on Tuesday that all of the refugees can be absorbed into relatives' homes in Dera Ismail Khan, which serves as a winter home for many South Waziristan residents.

Not so, says the aid official: "Not everyone has relatives here. So now what are we supposed to do? Some people are already out on open tents, in grounds. People are being housed in single houses with one bathroom and up to five families."

Angry at the Army

Mr. Khan, the elderly tribesman, says his bitterness is compounded by the carnage he witnessed just before fleeing his hometown. He says he saw a family of four dive for cover as a jet targeting a militant hideout flew over the town's main street; the hideout was destroyed, but the family died.

Other refugees echo Khan's hostility toward the government. Several of them voice the theory that the United States is aiding both the Pakistani Army and the Taliban, possibly to weaken Pakistan and steal its nuclear arsenal.

Such cynicism may help explain Mehsud tribal elders' rejection Tuesday of a government request to form a lashkar, or tribal militia, to take on the Taliban, a decision reported by McClatchy Newspapers.

"I don't know anything about the Taliban, but the operation is killing people," says Shakeel Ahmed, a student from Ladha, in South Waziristan. Of the dozen or so refugees interviewed, none expressed resentment toward the Taliban.

Also on Tuesday the Taliban engaged in fierce fighting with the Army in the key town of Kotkai, home of Qari Hussain, known as the master of suicide bombers. A day earlier the Army had claimed it was on the cusp of conquering the town.

As of Wednesday, nine soldiers and 91 militants had been killed, according to military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.

Militants hiding among refugees?

Meanwhile, concern among local officials that militants may have snuck into Dera Ismail Khan, which has a history of violence by Sunni militants against Shiites, has put the town on knife's edge.

Army convoys racing through require all cars in their vicinity to halt or risk being shot. Mobile phone signals are being blocked by the military, while military police, pickets, and barricades guard the town's housing compound for military officers and their families.

"We're very concerned about the entry of miscreants into the city," says Commissioner Humayun Khan, the region's top administrator. He adds that the authorities are monitoring visitors to the town and host families have been told they will be held responsible for those in their care.

All of this contributes to a tense atmosphere. "Talibanization has been occurring here for some years now, and most people are afraid to go out in the evenings," says Usman Elahi, a local engineer. All four local cinemas were boarded up two years ago for fear of targeting by extremists groups, he adds.

The tension permeates other parts of the country as well. Schools and colleges throughout Pakistan remained shut on Wednesday following two suicide bombings that hit the Islamic University of Islamabad and killed eight people, including the two bombers.

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