Thousands flee tribal region as Pakistan gears up for offensive

PESHAWAR Pakistan Mon Jun 23, 2014 6:35am EDT

People fleeing the military offensive against the Pakistani militants in North Waziristan, travel atop a vehicle with their belongings while entering Bannu, located in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, June 20, 2014.  REUTERS/Ihsan Khattak

People fleeing the military offensive against the Pakistani militants in North Waziristan, travel atop a vehicle with their belongings while entering Bannu, located in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, June 20, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Ihsan Khattak

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PESHAWAR Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan's military on Monday gave residents of North Waziristan until the end of the day to leave the remote mountainous region ahead of a widely anticipated major ground offensive by the army against Islamist militants.

At least 430,000 people have fled the region into nearby areas of Pakistan as well as neighboring Afghanistan, the biggest movement of refugees in Pakistan in years.

The military has sent fighter jets to flush out Taliban militants at the start of a comprehensive operation after a brazen attack this month on Karachi airport, Pakistan's largest. But the ground offensive has yet to start.

"Today is the last day for the people to leave the tribal region," a military official told Reuters by telephone from the North Waziristan capital of Miranshah. "The curfew will be then imposed and preparations made for the ground offensive."

Many of those who stayed behind - their number is unknown - said they could not afford to pay for cars to take them to safer places such as Bannu, a dusty town on the edge of the region, where most refugees have settled.

"Those who could afford it have left the tribal region, but some are still there and could die in the fighting as they don't have any means to come out of Waziristan," Zakirullah Khan said after arriving in Bannu.

He said prices charged by drivers had soared to levels well beyond the budgets of those wanting to leave. Other residents complained the government was not doing enough to help them. Many opted to stay with relatives rather than official camps.

Some of the region's most feared al Qaeda-linked militants are holed up high up in the North Waziristan mountains, using the area as a launching pad for attacks within Pakistan as well as against NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan has for years been under U.S. pressure to do more to eliminate these strongholds.

But the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has instead insisted on trying to engage militants in peace negotiations.

Sharif's peace initiative collapsed after the attack on Karachi airport, a turning point that convinced the government to abandon peace talks and announce military action.

Refugees said settlements in North Waziristan had been reduced to ghost towns.

"In my entire life I have never seen Waziristan so deserted and scary," said Shad Mir Wazir, a refugee, adding that he saw a number of Taliban militants still hiding in some villages.

(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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