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Refugees suffer in Pakistan's battle with Taliban

The Taliban beheaded their relatives and terrorized their villages. Now army airstrikes are killing the innocent, say refugees who fled fighting set off by a Pakistani military offensive .
Pakistan Cost of  War
A Pakistani boy from the Bajur tribal region flies his kite at the Katcha Garhi camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, Sunday, Oct. 19.Emilio Morenatti / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Taliban beheaded their relatives and terrorized their villages. Now army airstrikes are killing the innocent, say refugees who fled fighting set off by a Pakistani military offensive against the Islamic extremists.

The army maintains it is winning the war in the Bajur tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan, one of its most intense operations against al-Qaida and its Taliban allies since 2001. A spokesman even predicts military victory in a month.

Dozens of refugees interviewed by The Associated Press this week in tent camps on both sides of the border gave a rare glimpse of the human costs of the fighting in Bajur, a highly dangerous region where foreigners are largely restricted from visiting and Pakistani journalists have limited movement.

"I feel like a walking dead body," Parmeen Bibi said as she carried her wailing 3-year-old granddaughter in a camp in Peshawar, the main city in Pakistan's troubled northwest.

"I don't want to go back to that land where my innocent brothers were slaughtered," she said, referring to four brothers she says were beheaded by the Taliban for supporting the government. "To hell with those people, and to hell with those lands."

Thousands have fled fighting
Nearly 200,000 people have fled the fighting in Bajur, and many have sought refuge in the camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For the most part, the refugees said they witnessed only airstrikes and heard artillery fire in the distance. None saw any combat involving troops on the ground in Bajur — something the army says has not been a major feature in a fight that has relied heavily on bombs and rockets fired from planes and helicopters. The army also has some 6,000 to 8,000 soldiers and paramilitary troops on the ground.

Some refugees described militants patrolling areas, staking out positions and occasionally peeping out to fire rifles at aircraft. But they also said insurgent numbers are few.

Pakistan says it is doing its best to avoid civilian casualties in Bajur, which is believed to be a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. The military does not release information on civilian casualties and it is unclear if it keeps figures on them.

However, many refugees complained of high numbers of civilians killed in army airstrikes. Even those who expressed dislike for the Taliban said they felt betrayed by the government for tactics that take innocent lives.

Residents resentful of air attacks
Gulzada Khan said he and others had braved dangers to collect the bodies of children and women killed in the air attacks. "Whenever we went to collect the remains, the aircraft came again to the area and started bombing it," he said.

The United States has praised the Bajur offensive and urges Pakistan to press on against militants blamed for rising attacks on U.S. and NATO forces across the frontier in Afghanistan.

Added pressure on government
The insurgents also are blamed for soaring suicide attacks within Pakistan, such as last month's bloody bombing at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. Those attacks, and fighting in the northwest, are adding to pressure on Pakistan's young civilian government at a time of economic stagnation.

The military is battling insurgents in other parts of the northwest as well, but the government holds up its operation in Bajur as crucial to the overall fight against extremists.

The region borders Afghanistan, settled areas of Pakistan and other tribal areas, making it a key hub for militants. Before the offensive began in early August, officials said insurgents had set up a virtual mini-state there, enforcing their hard-line version of Islamic law and meting out brutal justice for violators and alleged spies.

Pakistan's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said this week that the army now controls about 70 percent of Bajur. Officials have estimated more than 1,000 militants have been killed, compared to 70 soldiers who have died since early September.

Creating militias to guard against insurgents
Officials have persuaded several tribes in Bajur to create militias to guard against insurgents, which could be crucial for maintaining control of the area when troops withdraw.

Abbas said it would take another month until "the whole area is cleared of the militants."

The insurgents have "made innovative trenches, innovative defenses in the populated areas," he said. "They have been also using anti-tank weapons systems. They have been getting heavy weapons from the Afghanistan side."

Holding on to Bajur, an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island and home to about 1 million people before the fighting, could prove more difficult than retaking it from militant control, analysts warn, especially if pro-government tribal militias should switch allegiance.

Pakistan's tribal regions are deeply conservative and have long had semi-autonomous status that limits the central government's authority while giving tribal elders great sway.

"These successes will only be meaningful if they can be sustained," said military analyst Talat Masood. "When the winter has set in, it becomes difficult to operate there."

Helping refugees rebuild
Helping refugees return, rebuild their homes and replant crops will be key to the government's long-term goal of winning over the local population.

Many of those who fled are staying with relatives, but thousands are living in at least nine camps set up in Pakistan's northwest, U.N. officials say. Some 20,000 people have taken refuge in Afghanistan.

In the Pakistani camps, families live in tents, with straw mats to cover the muddy floor. Heat and flies are constant companions, though conditions have improved since August because of work by the United Nations and other agencies.

In Afghanistan, some refugees are living in the open air.

"We have suffered a lot in this fighting," said Abdul Nadeem, a 28-year-old sheltering on the Afghan side. "We have just come here by ourselves and with our children, and we have left behind everything we have."