US Envoy Visits Pakistan Refugees

By: Rohan Sullivan, Associated Press Email
By: Rohan Sullivan, Associated Press Email

SHAIKH SHAHZAD CAMP, Pakistan (AP) - Top U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke brought promises of more American aid to sweltering camps where some of the 3 million refugees uprooted by Pakistan's offensive against the Taliban have fled.

In conversations in tents and under thatch-roofed buildings Thursday, Holbrooke also stressed that Washington's role in the crisis was to help the refugees, not the military - a message aimed at quelling deep suspicions in Pakistan that the Swat Valley campaign was launched at Washington's behest.

Meanwhile, the military said late Thursday that security forces had arrested three key associates of Sufi Muhammad, a hardline cleric who brokered a February truce between Pakistan and the Swat militants - a deal that collapsed after the Taliban tried to expand their presence to a district outside Swat.

The U.S. views the Swat operation as a test of Pakistan's resolve in taking on militancy along its border with Afghanistan. That resolve could fade if the public mood, now generally supportive of the offensive, changes. That could hinge on how Pakistan handles the refugee crisis and how it eventually restores peace and government in Swat.

Holbrooke, appointed in January as U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, flew by helicopter to two hot and dusty camps housing some of the worst-off refugees, and talked with residents in group meetings and during visits to a handful of sun-baked, sedan-sized tents that house entire families.

"We hope you can go back (home) soon, but we don't know," Holbrooke told refugees in Shaikh Shahzad camp near Mardan town. "You will go back soon, God willing."

Unprompted, Holbrooke said several times that making conditions safe enough for refugees to return was Pakistan's responsibility. "It's up to the Pakistani army to give you security, that is not our job," he said.

Holbrooke was warmly received, with residents thanking him for coming even as they complained about the conditions.

"Our crops are destroyed, and we are getting nothing here," Abdul Sajid, a farmer from the Buner district just south of Swat, told Holbrooke. "It is coming, the food, but it is not good. I am not satisfied with the conditions at the camp. We need your help."

Holbrooke told refugees the U.S. government has asked Congress to approve another $200 million in humanitarian aid for them, on top of $110 million already promised.

He said that total was more than had been pledged by the rest of the world's governments combined, and that Washington wanted other countries to do more.

Pakistani officials say some 3 million people have fled the fighting, with the vast majority relying on friends and family for food and accommodation.

More than 160,000 are living in about 20 camps just south of the battle zone, such as Shaikh Shahzad, where more than 8,000 people stay in rows of dirty white tents pitched in hard-dirt fields. Communal kitchens cook basic meals of rice and bread, and residents lug water in plastic containers.

"My house was crushed by shelling," said Nasir Wahab, a cell phone seller who fled to the camp with his wife and five children from Mingora, Swat's largest town, two weeks ago. "We have no money, no work. The food is just rice and bread. We have no bed, no mattress."

Nearby, his son Abdul Wahab loaded 20-pound (10-kilogram) bags of wheat from a three-wheeled motorbike into the family's tent, furnished only with an electric fan and two woven plastic ground mats.

Anti-U.S. feeling was evident among some in the camp.

"There is a perception among people about America that what it is doing leaves its impact on the Muslims. It is making us its slave, but we are not slaves. We are Muslims and Muslims don't accept anyone's slavery," Swat area refugee Farid Khan told AP Television News after Holbrooke had left.

Juma Gul, another refugee from Swat, said those who wanted to help deserved thanks.

"I think anyone who thinks about our welfare, he is our friend and he is everything for us. The one who does not care for our welfare and intends to harm us, he is our enemy," he said.

The United Nations warned Thursday that food and essential medicine in the camps may run out by early July if more money is not given to their relief efforts for the Pakistani refugees. The U.N. humanitarian affairs organization said it had received $119 million of the $543 million it has forecast it needs to care for refugees until the end of the year.

"The pipeline of food supplies could run out at the end of June if funds are not urgently and significantly contributed," the group said in a statement.

Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez told commanders in a regular meeting Thursday that major towns and roads leading to the Swat Valley had been "largely cleared of organized resistance" and that the tide in Swat had "decisively turned," the military said in a statement. Top Taliban leaders were still being hunted, however, and isolated violence was expected to continue for some time.

In separate statement, the military said security forces during a raid to nab suspected militants at a religious school on Thursday arrested hardline cleric Sufi Muhammad's deputy Maulana Alam, his spokesman Ameer Izzat Khan, and another aide, Syed Wahab.

Officers seized eight hand grenades and other munitions at the site, the statement said. Muhammad's whereabouts were not immediately clear, but various officials said he was not detained.
Associated Press Writer Ashraf Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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