Image: Pakistan refugee camp
Greg Baker  /  AP
A Pakistani boy stands near tents at a refugee camp in Mardan, in northwest Pakistan, Wednesday, May 13.
updated 5/13/2009 10:41:18 PM ET 2009-05-14T02:41:18

Refugees fleeing Pakistan's fight against the Taliban scuffled for relief supplies as the military said it had secured footholds in a northwestern valley overrun by the insurgents.

The operations against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley area are shaping up as a major test of the Pakistani army's often questioned commitment to uprooting an insurgency that the U.S. says poses a threat to the existence of the nuclear-armed, pro-Western state.

The army claims to have killed more than 750 militants, but the fighting has also driven some 800,000 people from their homes, creating a humanitarian emergency that could undercut support for the fight among its people and politicians.

Around 80,000 of those are staying in camps just south of the battle zone, the United Nations says. Conditions are hot and dusty, but shelter, food and medical facilities are available.

Tempers boiled over in one camp Wednesday when several refugees scuffled with police escorting a truck carrying mattresses and water, according to footage broadcast by local TV station Express News. Police struck several people with batons, but the incident did not last long and there were no reports of injuries.

Feeding 80,000 refugees a day
In a statement, the military said the offensive could only be successful if the refugees were well looked after and civilian casualties were kept to a minimum. It pledged to hand over enough of its daily ration allowance to feed 80,000 refugees each day.

It also said commandos airlifted into the valley Tuesday had established a "firm hold" in the remote Piochar area, the rear base of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah. Various clashes in the previous 24 hours left four soldiers and 11 militants dead, it said.

Officers also found five headless bodies near the valley's main town, Mingora, the army said, giving no details of the victims' identities. Residents have said the Taliban have repeatedly decapitated opponents and dumped their bodies in Mingora.

The army has yet to start operations in Mingora, where witnesses say insurgents are in control and preparing for what could be bloody house-to-house fighting.

It says it has no information to corroborate accounts from refugees of dozens of civilians killed and injured in the fighting, which has included massive airstrikes on militant targets.

Meanwhile, The Guardian newspaper reported that a banned Islamist group linked to last year's Mumbai attacks was helping in the aid effort in the camps. It said the group, Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, was the new name for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is widely considered the front group for the outfit blamed for the Mumbai siege that left 166 people dead and hundreds more wounded.

It cited two volunteers for the group in the field, a terror expert and unnamed officials.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Hafiz Abdur Rauf, who used to head Jamaat's welfare department and was cited in the report as the leader of Falah, denied the group had any connection to Jamaat. He also denied he was its leader and described Falah as an independent welfare organization that he was helping.

The government launched a crackdown on Jamaat soon after the Mumbai attacks, arresting several of its leaders, seizing its assets and closing its branches.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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