- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

BUNER, Pakistan — Thousands of residents are fleeing this northwestern Pakistani district in an exodus that belies government claims of success in its battle to drive out Taliban militants.

Since Tuesday, security forces have been on the offensive in the Buner district, about 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, amid growing fears in the United States and other aid-supplying nations that the government had capitulated to Taliban fighters.

Pakistan’s willingness to fight is likely to dominate discussions this week, when President Asif Ali Zardari meets with President Obama at the White House.

Mr. Zardari recently ratified a so-called peace agreement in which the government imposed Islamic law in a vast region of the North West Frontier Province in exchange for a Taliban pledge to lay down its arms in the Swat Valley, the district west of Buner. Instead of complying, the Taliban pushed into Buner.

The Pakistani army said Sunday that it had killed 80 militants in its bid to retake Buner.

The militants were “in gross violation of the peace accord” and their actions threatened “the lives of the [civilian] population, civil administration as well as security forces personnel,” the army said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

Speaking to The Washington Times by telephone, a local journalist said Pakistani forces had control of Daggar, home to government offices, but little else outside the city.

“The situation is horrible. Bombings are going on across Buner. Dead bodies of people are laying on streets. Thousands of people are fleeing. Some women have even given birth to children while fleeing Buner,” said the local journalist, who asked for anonymity for fear of his life.

This reporter managed to travel about 15 miles into the Buner district from the south and found truckloads of refugees heading the other way. Police stations in small villages along the way had been blown up.

“There are several bombs on this road. Taliban placed them and will blow them in case security forces try to enter the region through this road,” said young two boys who gave their names as Nawaz and Shah.

As they spoke, huge explosions could be heard in the distance.

People packed into cars, pickup trucks and vans and headed south toward the neighboring Swabi district.

A middle-aged man, Syed Karim, lead a caravan of more than five dozen men, women and children including his family members and neighbors.

“Innocent people are being killed in the bombings by security forces. I do not know where to go. The only thing I know is to get out of here,” Mr. Karim said.

Syed Osman, who accompanied his family in a van, said the situation was getting worse. “Most of the people in our village [Koga] and surrounding areas are fleeing,” he said.

Residents of the roadside villages offered water, food and even medicine to people searching for a safe place to spend the night.

“Day and night, thousands of people are coming from the areas where operation against militants is going on. They are not staying here. They move forward, because it is not safe even here,” said Syed Ghani Shah, a shopkeeper at the bazaar of Cheenglay, one of the roadside villages.

Muhammadi Shah, 70, who fled Buner with his family, is staying with relatives in Swabi. He said his grandchildren are still in a shock.

“There were huge explosions. Children have never heard such kind of explosions. They never saw helicopters flying very close to their homes,” he said.

“We had no other option but to flee. Otherwise, we would have lost our children. They [children] are now asking us not to take them back to those areas.”

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