Pakistan Allies Aid Refugees From Taliban Fight

By: Chris Brummitt, Associated Press Email
By: Chris Brummitt, Associated Press Email

ISLAMABAD (AP) - Donations to help refugees fleeing Pakistan's latest offensive against the Taliban surpassed $200 million Thursday, as the country's allies sought to ease a crisis that risks eroding public support for military action against the militants.

About 1.9 million people have fled the fighting in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas, a mountainous region not far from the Afghan border where the Taliban have found safe haven in recent years. More than 160,000 are staying in sweltering camps just south of the battle zone; the rest have been taken in by relatives.

The United Nations has set up tent schools at the camps. At one on Thursday, teachers drilled dozens of kids sitting cross-legged on mats in numbers and letters before giving the pupils packets of biscuits as an incentive for them to return.

"Children have to continue to go to school," said Daniel Poole, regional director of the U.N.'s children fund after visiting the school. "It's what makes things feel normal again, even in this context that's so abnormal."

The army claims it has killed more than 1,000 militants and won back swaths of territory in the region, but it faces stiff resistance from up to 5,000 well-trained and equipped fighters and has ventured no prediction of when the Taliban will be defeated.

On Thursday, it said five soldiers and an unspecified number of Taliban were killed in battles in several parts of the valley during the previous 24 hours. Seven militants were captured, a military statement said. The account was impossible to verify because reporters have little access to the war zone.

In another part of the border region, a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle close to a paramilitary fort in the town of Jandola, killing four soldiers and four civilians, including three children, two intelligence officers said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The government organized a donors conference attended by representatives of foreign countries and aid groups to raise money to look after the refugees from the region, which was popular with skiers and holiday makers before the Taliban took over, enforcing an ultra-hardline brand of Islamic law and beheading opponents.

"There is an urgent need for a joint and comprehensive response to this issue by all those who are committed to fighting terrorism," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said. "Without peace there can be no sustainable development and without development the establishment of enduring peace is impossible."

Hina Rabbani Khar, a government official overseeing the relief effort, said Thursday that foreign donors had pledged $224 million to help the displaced. The total includes $110 million pledged Tuesday by the United States.

The Pakistan government, which is relying on foreign loans to keep the economy afloat, has said it will spend $100 million. Khar said the U.N. would issue an appeal for more funds on Friday.

The government launched the offensive last month after the militants violated a peace deal and advanced to a region within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the capital, Islamabad.

The army operation has so far enjoyed broad public and political support, but analysts have warned that could ebb - as happened in early operations in the northwest - if the refugees are seen to be neglected.

U.S. officials are scrambling to help the pro-Western government manage the refugee crisis and encourage it to sustain and expand its military action to other areas of the border region where al-Qaida and Taliban are holed out.

Rear Adm. Michael A. LeFever, the top U.S. military official at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, forecast Wednesday that between 200,000 and 250,000 will be living in refugee camps through the end of the year.


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