Thursday, May 14, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | Refugees fleeing Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban scuffled for relief supplies on Wednesday as the military said it had secured footholds in a northwestern valley overrun by the insurgents.

The operations against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley area are shaping up as a major test of the Pakistani army’s often-questioned commitment to uprooting an insurgency that the U.S. says poses a threat to the existence of the nuclear-armed, pro-Western state.

The army claims to have killed more than 750 militants, but the fighting has also driven an estimated 800,000 people from their homes, creating a humanitarian emergency that could undercut support for the fight among Pakistan’s people and politicians.

About 80,000 of those refugees are staying in camps just south of the battle zone, the United Nations says. Conditions are hot and dusty, but shelter, food and medical facilities are available.

Tempers boiled over in one camp Wednesday when several refugees scuffled with police escorting a truck carrying mattresses and water, according to footage broadcast by local TV station Express News. Police struck several people with batons, but the incident did not last long and there were no reports of injuries.

The military said the offensive could only be successful if the refugees were well looked after and civilian casualties were kept to a minimum. It pledged to hand over enough of its daily ration allowance to feed 80,000 refugees each day.

It also said commandos airlifted into the valley Tuesday had established a “firm hold” in the remote Piochar area, the rear base of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah. Various clashes in the previous 24 hours left four soldiers and 11 militants dead, it said.

Officers also found five headless bodies near the valley’s main town, Mingora, the army said, giving no details of the victims’ identities. Residents have said the Taliban has repeatedly decapitated opponents and dumped their bodies in Mingora.

The army has yet to start operations in Mingora, where witnesses say insurgents are in control and preparing for what could be bloody house-to-house fighting.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that a banned Islamist group linked to last year’s Mumbai attacks was also helping in the aid effort in the camps. It said the group, Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, was the new name for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is widely considered the front group for the outfit blamed for the Mumbai siege that left about 170 people dead and hundreds more wounded.

Citing two volunteers for the group in the field, a terrorism expert and unnamed officials, the Guardian said the group’s members were running a well-organized operation in one camp, providing hot meals and transporting people from the battle’s hot spots.

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