Pakistani army fails to rescue civilian allies in Swat

McClatchy NewspapersMay 21, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Short of food and desperate for the military to support them, some 200,000 people remain trapped in northern Swat as the Pakistani army battles to wrest the area farther south back from Taliban extremists, residents said Thursday.

Residents of Kalam, a town in the far north of Swat, said the army failed to come to the rescue when they tried to battle the Taliban themselves in recent days. Several locals contacted by phone said that residents had agreed to a cease-fire late Wednesday after the militants outgunned them.

With backing from the Obama administration, Pakistan launched an offensive against armed Islamic extremists on April 26, first in the districts of Dir and Buner, then in Swat, the Taliban's stronghold in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. More than a million residents have fled their homes, causing an enormous humanitarian crisis, and those who remain are highly vulnerable.

Residents of Kalam, Madyan and Bahrain, three towns in northern Swat, said they cannot escape because the army or the Taliban are blocking the roads to the south. The only other means of escape is across the mountains to the north, west and east, an arduous route not suitable for large extended families.

The military operation in Swat, which began on May 7, is working its way up the valley but remains south of Madyan. No army assistance or even relief supplies are available to those in the northern reaches of Swat.

"We are completely trapped here between the army and the Taliban," said Zahoor Shakir, a school principal, speaking from the town of Bahrain over the intermittent cell phone service. "They (the authorities) don't give us any rations or allow us to leave."

There's no electricity, and flour has run out in Bahrain, meaning that flat bread, the staple food, is no longer available. People said they were eating boiled rice, sometimes with potatoes or peas, which are grown locally.

"I have collected 40 coffins," said another Bahrain resident, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. " We have become ready to die. This is some kind of joke being played on us."

Mohammad Saleem, a doctor in Bahrain, estimated that some 200,000 people remained trapped in northern Swat. The army gave a similar estimate Thursday. Saleem said that he was able to give only basic treatment to patients now.

"Life-saving medicines are running out," said Saleem. "Now there is almost nothing to eat. The shops are empty. There's nothing to buy. We need flour, sugar, medicines."

Khan Saeed, a mayor from Bahrain who escaped to Islamabad as the offensive started, said that people from Bahrain and Kalam with whom he was in contact felt let down by the army.

In Buner and other parts of militancy-plagued northwest Pakistan, local uprisings against the Taliban during the last two years got little or no backing from the army.

"In Kalam, people did resist for two days, but they got no support from the authorities," said Saeed. "This is a tragedy. Where are they (the army) when they are needed? That's how trust is damaged."

The army's chief spokesman acknowledged that it was far from the area in question.

"The army's nowhere close to Kalam. The army's not in that area," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman. "It's too far away, too far up north."

Cell phone service in Kalam have been cut, but several people from Bahrain had gone to Kalam Thursday to take part in a traditional meeting, a "jirga," to mediate between the Taliban and the locals. Bahrain residents said that they'd intervened to stop the bloodshed after the Taliban killed a local man in Kalam and injured two others. Kalam residents had taken up arms after a Taliban raiding party entered the town, leading to a two-day gun battle.

The Taliban are based in several buildings in Bahrain, and residents have vacated nearby homes for fear of airstrikes, but the extremists and the residents are not clashing, preferring an uneasy co-existence, residents said.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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