Villagers flee battle zone in Pakistani valley

BUNER VALLEY, Pakistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of families fled Pakistan’s Buner valley on Thursday as security forces battled through mountain passes to evict Taliban fighters, whose advance towards Islamabad had sown alarm.

Evacuees from Buner walk on the outskirts of Peshawar April 29, 2009. REUTERS/Ali Imam

The military mounted an offensive on Tuesday after the Taliban had crept from their stronghold in the adjoining Swat valley into Buner, 100 km northwest of the capital.

The Taliban’s proximity to Islamabad had heightened fears among Western allies that nuclear-armed Pakistan was becoming more unstable.

People had initially resisted the Taliban intruders, until a local political administrator persuaded them to submit. The administrator has since been removed.

“There is no support for the Taliban in Buner but people are scared of their terror. There is one suicide bomber with every five to six Taliban. This is frightening,” Gul Zada, a truck driver from Buner, told Reuters.

Over 50 militants and one soldier were killed in two days of fighting concentrated near Daggar, the main town of a district with an over 70,000 population.

While Zada has been waiting to return to his home near Ambala, where much of the fighting is raging, thousands of people fled their villages in vehicles crammed with belongings and even the odd cow or goat.

“We are leaving but we don’t know where we will be going. There has been fighting in my village the whole night,” said an old women clad in a shawl while sitting on the back of a pickup as her bearded son looked on.

Gul Khan, a young man who left Ambala with 29 members of his extended family, said his children had not slept for the past two nights.

In Chinglai, a village dotted with tobacco, wheat and maize fields near the battlezone, residents stood by the roadside offering water, juices, cucumbers, candy, cooked rice and maize bread to people who had left their homes behind.

Security forces have cordoned the road leading to the battle zone, but militants were still prowling the neighbourhood.

“Last evening a few Taliban came in a pickup and made an announcement through loudspeakers that we should switch our lights off to avoid firing from the helicopter,” Pir Zaman Shah, a white-bearded, bespectacled old man, recounted.

“Exactly at midnight, there was a huge explosion and in the morning we found out that they (the Taliban) had blown up the police post,” he said, standing beside the ruins of the post.

“Right now there is no fighting here but most villagers have left their homes. We stayed behind to take care of crops and livestock.”

While there were no signs of security forces in Chinglai, artillery guns were positioned among wheat fields in Rustam, a town on the main road, some 15 km from the entrance to Buner valley.

Loud explosions echoed round the hillsides as gunners targeted militant positions on the slopes.

Helicopters overflew the area while two tanks lumbered back from the front line. A soldier gripped a machine-gun mounted on the back of a military pickup at a checkpost on the road to Ambala.

“We want peace, whosoever brings it is welcome,” said Pir Mahar Shah said, while sipping tea at a restaurant nearby.