Pakistanis get brief window to flee fighting

Pakistani civilians pack a bus leaving Mingora, the capital of the troubled Swat Valley.
Pakistani civilians were given a brief window on Friday to flee the ongoing fighting between government forces and Taliban militants in the country’s north, according to military officials.

The Pakistan army is trying to push the Taliban away from regions of the troubled Swat Valley. A curfew was relaxed from 6 a.m. till 2 p.m. local time Friday in Kabal, Kanju and Mingora — in the Swat Valley — and in Malakand Agency, which is a separate district. The government provided an estimated 150 vehicles to evacuate people, as private cars are not allowed to enter Mingora. The Taliban have been concentrating forces there — digging trenches, laying mines, taking positions on rooftops, according to strategic expert Reva Bhalla of Stratfor, a firm that describes itself as a global intelligence company. “The Taliban are concentrating forces in Mingora — digging trenches, laying mines, taking positions on rooftops,” said Bhalla. “It is not clear if the Pakistani military is trained and even equipped to go into a situation like that,” she said, adding that even the United States military “would have to think twice” about such an offensive. She estimates there are 5,000 Taliban fighters in the area. “The question is: Are they going to try to stand and fight, or try to regroup” she asked.

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With a government offensive against the Taliban nearly three weeks old, a spokesman for Pakistan’s army said the military intends to drive the Taliban out of the contested area. “The whole resolve of the government and the military is to once and for all finish the Taliban from the Valley of Swat,” Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told CNN’s Reza Sayah. The Pakistani military is trying to push the Taliban away from the heavily forested and mountainous regions of the Swat district toward the south, so the army can encircle the militants, Bhalla added. According to the chief minister of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, some 1.5 million people have been displaced by 10 months of fighting between the military and Taliban militants along its border with Afghanistan. The number of people at the Yar Hussain displaced-persons camp in Swabi district is expected to reach 2 million, Amir Haider Hoti said. The military announced earlier this week the number was 1.3 million. The huge refugee camps that the conflict is creating could be “the perfect recruiting grounds for the Taliban to prey on,” Bhalla said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations’ top official on refugees told CNN Thursday the world must launch a “massive international effort” to care for the refugees, or it will be “absolutely impossible” to provide for them. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, in a speech to parliament Thursday, called the refugee crisis a massive and unprecedented predicament. “They are our own people and their children are my children,” Gilani said.