Image: Woman at a refugee camp in Pakistan
Paula Bronstein  /  Getty Images
Mumtaha, 70, at the Yar Hussain camp in Swabi, Pakistan on Thursday, the same day U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke pledged more American funds to support refugees from fighting in the Swat Valley.
updated 6/4/2009 7:05:28 PM ET 2009-06-04T23:05:28

Top U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke brought promises of more American aid Thursday 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, 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.

The United States strongly supports Pakistan's month-old offensive to rout the Taliban from the Swat Valley region and sees it as a test of the government's resolve in taking on militants elsewhere in the Afghan border region.

But that commitment could erode quickly if the public mood turns against the government. Already unpopular, the Pakistani government's fortunes could dwindle further if the military is blamed for unnecessary deaths and destruction or if the resettlement of up to 3 million of refugees is handled badly.

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."

Security 'up to Pakistani army'
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.

Image: Top U.S. Richard Holbrooke at Pakistan refugee camp
Faisal Mahmood  /  Reuters
At the Shah Mansoor camp on Thursday, top U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, in hat, urged European and Muslim nations to help families who have fled the conflict in Pakistan's Swat Valley in order to avert a humanitarian crisis.
"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.

Rows of dirty tents
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 evident
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.

Several hours after Holbrooke had departed, a roadside bomb exploded as a police convoy passed by about 10 miles (15 kilometers) north of Mardan, wounding 22 police and triggering a gunfight with suspected militants that killed three officers, said provincial Information Minister Iftikhar Husin.

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," the military said in a statement.

Taliban leaders hunted
Taliban leaders were still be hunted, however, and isolated violence was expected to continue for some time.

In a new audiotape that surfaced Wednesday, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden apparently sought to foment anti-U.S. sentiment by claiming Washington had pressured Pakistan to launch the Swat offensive and destroy Muslims' lives and homes.

Holbrooke on Wednesday rejected the idea as "ludicrous," though Thursday's visit to the camps may serve to help prevent it from taking root.

"The political strategy is pretty simple, to use the humanitarian assistance from the U.S. government as a means to demonstrate America's commitment to the people of Pakistan," said Daniel S. Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

"Washington is very supportive of the Pakistani army's operations, but at the same time, Holbrooke does not want to give Pakistanis reason to believe that their government is acting under pressure from Washington," he wrote in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Shaun Gregory, a Pakistan analyst at the University of Bradford in the U.K., said Holbrooke's trip was to press the government to follow up the Swat offensive with military action against Taliban operating in the tribal belt along the Afghan border, including allowing more use of spy drones.

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


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