The U.S. has provided emergency assistance to Pakistanis displaced by an army operation against Islamist militants in a northwest tribal region bordering Afghanistan, embassy officials said Wednesday.
Local authorities have said more than 200,000 people have fled Bajur, the primary focus of the nearly two-week-old offensive, and the neighboring Mohmand tribal area. Many have landed in relief camps set up by the government and political parties.
"We are working alongside the Pakistani and provincial governments to get emergency aid to those in need," said U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson, adding that $50,000 had been set aside for gas stoves, pots, utensils and plastic sheeting.
The supplies are intended to help those "displaced by the fighting survive until it is safe for them to return to their homes," she said, without suggesting when that might be.
Bajur is considered a potential hiding place for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri. About 480 people have been killed in the fighting so far, according to Pakistani officials. That figure, offered last week, included suspected insurgents and just 22 paramilitary troops, whereas witnesses in the region also have reported civilian deaths.
The numbers and scope of the offensive have been difficult to confirm because of the remote and dangerous nature of the area and the reluctance of officials to divulge details.
The U.S. aid indicated American officials were watching the situation with growing concern. But it also came as Washington seeks to strengthen its ties to the new ruling coalition, which this week managed to force longtime U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf to quit as president.
The U.S. also has pushed Pakistan to root out insurgents from the tribal areas, and has frowned on its attempts to seek peace deals with militants instead of resorting to force.
The spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment on the U.S. aid package.
Pakistani army helicopter gunships and jets have been pounding militant positions in Bajur since the fighting broke out Aug. 6, when scores of insurgents attacked a military outpost.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the operation was confined to Bajur, but it was possible the operation was having a spillover effect on residents in Mohmand.
Many of the displaced were headed to the Lower Dir region just north of Bajur, where government officials say several relief camps have been set up. Large numbers also went to the main northwestern city of Peshawar and surrounding areas.
Television footage in recent days has shown hundreds of people packing trucks or walking with belongings to escape the violence. Some were guiding cows across a bridge.
Gul Bibi, 58, cried as she told an Associated Press reporter that her husband Hamid Khan left home for evening prayers in the Mullah Sayed area in Bajur four days ago but never returned.
"I don't know where he has gone," said Bibi, who along with several other relatives had reached the Munda area on the Dir-Bajur border. "The Taliban took him along forcibly for fighting or he is consumed in the indiscriminate bombing in our area."
Around 780 people were at a relief camp at a school compound in Nowshera district near Peshawar. Dozens of off-white tents were up, while dust-covered children lingered barefoot.
Allahdad Khan, the camp administrator, said the government and several relief groups were providing medical services, blankets, food and other aid.
"It's the beginning, so at this stage the situation is under control," he said. "But as the number of these people is increasing there could be needs."
It's unclear how much longer the Bajur clashes will continue.
Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said last week that Pakistani intelligence has reports that about 3,000 armed militants were present in Bajur. The militants include Pakistanis, Afghan Taliban and Central Asians, he said.
The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for two deadly bombings in the northwest in the last several days, saying it was retaliation for the military offensive.