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Poor civilians flee Pakistan's assault on Taliban

Locals direct their anger toward the army as homes damaged, villages flattened in bid to rout militants from Buner district

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

CHINGLAI, PAKISTAN — Impoverished farmer Zaroon Mohammad walked for two days with his scrawny cattle to escape Pakistan's new offensive against Taliban militants in Buner district, north of the country's capital.

But rather than be happy about Pakistan's belated offensive to counter the militants who tried to annex his area, his anger – like other residents – is now directed at the army.

“We didn't see any Taliban, they are up in the mountains, yet the army flattens our villages,” said Mr. Mohammad, 45, walking with about a dozen cattle and the male members of his family. “Our house has been badly damaged. These cows are now our total possessions.”

The week-old operation in Buner won high praise in Washington, and in much of Pakistan, but the actual people affected were scathing of the army's heavy-handed tactics, which they allege have caused widespread damage to civilian property and have injured or killed ordinary villagers. In a battle for hearts and minds, Buner is being lost, even though locals do not support the Taliban.

If the Buner refugees' version of events bears out, it would fit a pattern that has marked Pakistan's halting battle against Islamic extremists, a history that has seen the army watch developments from the sidelines until the problem becomes impossible to ignore and then go in with guns blazing. The same model was followed in previous military operations in Swat, and the tribal area along the Afghan border, and also in dealing with the extremists holed up at Islamabad's Red Mosque in 2007 – where an army raid, six months after the radicals had taken control of the place, resulted in a bloodbath.

Even as the fighting rages in Buner, a much bigger war looms in the neighbouring district of Swat where fierce gun-battles broke out late yesterdaybetween the army and Taliban fighters in the streets of district's main town of Mingora, while about 46 police officers were reportedly surrounded by militants at the electricity grid station. Earlier in the day, a military convoy was ambushed in Swat, killing one soldier and wounding two others. Swat is the Taliban stronghold, where a controversial three-month-old peace deal is now rapidly disintegrating into violence.

Those fleeing the Buner violence, on the road south to the town of Swabi, accused the military of using poorly directed artillery and air power to pound civilian areas. Critics of the Pakistan army have repeatedly said that it appears incapable of “smart” counterinsurgency operations against a nimble enemy such as Taliban guerrillas, as it is still trained for conventional warfare led by tank battles.

“They shouldn't use the army in this [indiscriminate] way. They should be targeted at the Taliban,” said Saed Afsar Khan, who was leaving Buner with 18 members of his family and two cows. He estimated that 80 of the 400 houses were destroyed in his village of Kawga, near to the key conflict zone of Ambela. “I don't think they've killed even one Taliban. Only ordinary people.”

The Pakistani army waited for about 25 days after Taliban stormed into Buner from Swat before launching their response, and now appear to have used the kind of force that has alienated the population. Television pictures show tanks and helicopter gunships in action in Buner, a dirt-poor rural area.

“Why did they not nip the evil in the bud? This is criminal negligence,” said Sahibzada, a college teacher, who goes by one name, in Palodand village just outside Buner to the south, where he helps to organize relief for those running from the fighting. “They have caused huge financial losses for those who've been forced to flee and caused hatred among those people for their government.”

Buner is a stridently anti-Taliban district, where the people had raised their own militia to defend themselves against the extremists, so locals were potentially supportive of government's decision to take on the Taliban. A key grievance is a curious order given by a senior government official – the “commissioner” for the Malakand area in which Buner falls – to disband the anti-Taliban militia soon after the insurgents entered Buner.

The delay in moving the armed forces against the extremists in Buner may have allowed them to entrench themselves and mass sufficient weapons and men to put up stiff resistance. The Taliban have managed to take hostage some 2,000 villagers in the Pir Baba area north of Buner, the army confirmed yesterday.

While the refugees' estimates of civilian casualties are likely to be exaggerated as a result of their trauma, the army's rejection of any such damage is also likely to be questioned.

“There are no reports I have of any civilian casualties,” said Major-General Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman. “Or any collateral damage. We have made maximum efforts to avoid it.”

One reason why the Buner operation has likely resulted in civilian casualties is that ordinary people were given no instructions about how to leave the district and many were confused about the timing of the curfew, those fleeing said. A cause of further frustration was that little or no preparation was made for accommodating those who would be displaced by the fighting.

There are no reliable figures so far for the number who have fled Buner. Those leaving describe Buner, which had a population of some 500,000, as having been practically emptied. According to the Al-Khidmat Foundation, an Islamic charity which is helping them, more than 150,000 have taken the road south to Swabi alone. The UNHCR, the refugee arm of the United Nations, has registered only around 18,000 individuals but counting is tricky as almost none of the displaced have gone into the camps now being set up for them outside Buner.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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