- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani security forces began escorting hundreds of thousands of refugees on Monday from sweltering tent camps back to their homes in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas.

But some refused to leave, fearing Taliban insurgents remain active in the former tourist haven. Others said they had yet to receive a $300 aid payment promised by the Pakistani government.

Mian Iftikhar, information minister for the North West Frontier Province, said the provincial government would bear the cost of returning an estimated 280,000 refugees who have been living in 20 camps since the army began a full-scale offensive against militants in May.

Those in camps will be the first to return, he said. The majority of about 2 million refugees, who are living with relatives throughout Pakistan, would follow in an operation the government hopes to complete in a month.

Azam Khan, a senior official in the government’s emergency response unit, told reporters that 92 families out of an estimated 2,680 left three camps on Monday.

“We expect an increase in coming days,” Mr. Khan told reporters at Charsadda, where 22 out of a planned 247 families left for the Swat district, according to Agence France-Presse.

Pakistan launched its offensive against militants in Swat and surrounding districts after Taliban fighters violated terms of a peace deal and began advancing toward the capital, Islamabad.

By the end of May, the army claimed to have defeated the militants and gained control of major towns.

The provincial government admitted that the security situation in Swat and the adjacent Buner region is not ideal but said that it is satisfactory enough for sending refugees back.

Miangul Adnan Aurangzeb, a former member National Assembly, warned against an abrupt return of refugees without adequate preparations.

“We admit militancy was a blow and mass migration of [refugees] was a calamity, but now we have time to rethink over this entire episode,” Mr. Aurangzeb said.

Sherin Jan, 80, from Gogdara village in Swat, said he is afraid of what he will find when he returns from one refugee camp.

“Certainly, we will go back home as my grandchildren are very much upset in this scorching heat, and I am worried about my property as our village was badly hit by security forces shelling,” Mr. Jan said.

But some on Monday said they were delighted to return.

“Everybody is so happy. They are crying tears of joy,” Sakhawat Shah, a 25-year-old English student, told Agence France-Presse by telephone after reaching Landakai. “My room was destroyed in the shelling. My computer and books were also damaged. But I’m not worried because if I’m alive, I can buy more books.”

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