Around 90,000 flee South Waziristan fearing anti-Taliban push
DERA ISMAIL KHAN: Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region fearing an imminent army offensive against Taliban militants, officials said Wednesday.
Military and government officials vowed in June to launch an operation into the mountainous northwest stronghold of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but so far only air raids and occasional artillery strikes have hit militant sanctuaries.
However, the wave of Taliban attacks killing 125 people in Pakistan since last Monday have stoked fears that a retaliatory ground onslaught is looming, sending more people fleeing into districts neighbouring South Waziristan.
‘People are coming out of the area and around 90,000 people have left the area and have been shifted to safer places in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank,’ said Shahab Ali Shah, the top administrative official in South Waziristan.
That figure was as of August 1, he said, but there has been a fresh exodus after 10 militants staged an audacious hostage siege at army headquarters near Islamabad on Saturday and Sunday, deeply embarrassing the military.
‘Again people have started coming out of the area because of the fear of an army operation,’ Amir Latif, chief administrative official in Tank district, told AFP. ‘We have started registering them and giving them help,’ Hameedullah Khan, a senior government official in Dera Ismail Khan, said that his district had registered about 8,300 families — up to 60,000 people — with the rest taking sanctuary in Tank and elsewhere.
An anti-Taliban offensive in northwest Swat valley earlier this year forced nearly two million people from their homes, creating a massive humanitarian crisis. Most have since returned home.
Residents said that life was becoming increasingly difficult in South Waziristan, with sporadic air strikes hitting in the mountains and a military blockade of key roads taking a harsh toll on civilians.
‘I left the area because the government is going to launch an operation against the Taliban,’ said Mohammad Hashim Khan, who left his hometown of Sarwakai for Dera Ismail Khan on Sunday with seven family members.
‘We were facing food shortages as forces have blocked various roads. Most of the residents are shifting their families to safer places.’
The army headquarters siege and three recent massive suicide blasts have shown the Taliban threat is far from quashed, despite the death of their leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in South Waziristan on August 5.