Pakistan: “humanitarian catastrophe” looms in Swat Valley

The 24-hour curfew in Swat Valley, North West Frontier Province, which started on May 18, has led to severe shortages of food, water and medicines, creating a humanitarian crisis, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). “People trapped in the Swat conflict zone face a humanitarian catastrophe unless the Pakistani military immediately lifts a curfew that has been in place continuously for the last week,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.

“The government cannot allow the local population to remain trapped without food, clean water and medicine as a tactic to defeat the Taliban,” HRW said. Residents in the valley have been completely cut off from the outside world since the fighting started. Mingora, Swat’s principal town, has been the scene of intense street battles between the Pakistani military and Taliban insurgents.

“An estimated 300,000 people are trapped in Swat Valley’s Miandam, Madyan, Bahrain, Kalam and Mingora [towns], which is 20% of the total population of the area,” Lt. Col. Raja Waseem Shahid of the Special Support Group for internally displaced persons, set up by the government, told the UN news agency IRIN.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a statement May 26 that many people were still reportedly stranded in conflict zones. The curfew is only lifted for a few hours, and during this time the roads get quickly congested as people rush to flee. One man who fled Teeraman Dehri village told IRIN: “The entire village came under heavy missile attack by the army, killing the entire population… I am a man of very strong nerves, but that day, I just broke down completely… The following day, people from adjacent villages came and buried all the dead in a mass grave.”

The military says 1,095 militants and 63 soldiers have been killed since the fighting began, but has no data on civilian casualties. “We are doing our best to ensure there are minimum civilian losses and that’s why the operation is slow,” AFP quoted chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas as saying May 23. The army says it may need another two weeks to clear the area of militants. (IRIN, May 28)

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