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PAKISTAN: Taliban Use Human Shields Against Army Offensive

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Jun 16 2011 (IPS) - Thousands of civilians are virtually being held hostage in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, where the outlawed Taliban have been refusing them passage to safer areas ahead of a government plan to intensify army offensives.

Internally displaced persons at the Jalozai camp.  Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

Internally displaced persons at the Jalozai camp. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

Some were able to escape Taliban strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and make their way to Peshawar, the capital of neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, narrating how they dodged militants.

“We walked for 10 hours until we reached a safer place, where we got a vehicle to transport us to Peshawar,” said Abdul Jabbar, a vegetable merchant from Bajaur Agency where army operations have been going on since 2009.

“The Taliban want us to stay because they want to use the people as a buffer against army operations,” said Jabbar, who arrived in Peshawar on Jun 3.

“Thousands of men, women and children have been waiting by the roadside in several localities after they received news that the government was launching a massive operation,” said local human rights activist Jawad Ali.

He said the Taliban were doing the same thing they did when the army launched an operation in the Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2007. Thousands remained stranded when the operation started because the militants refused to let them through the checkpoints, Ali recalled. “It is an old strategy by the Taliban to use people as human shields to protect themselves.”

Taliban forces have been holed up in the FATA since the U.S. launched a campaign against them in 2001, forcing them out of Afghanistan and into sanctuaries in the sprawling FATA, crossing over the long and porous Pakistan-Afghan border. The tribal areas are spread out over 47,000 sq km with a population of five million.

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda then began targeting Pakistani forces in the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, prompting the government to launch military operations to flush them out.

Operations are currently underway in six of the seven tribal “agencies” or districts, except North Waziristan, where an impending military offensive has caused unrest among the population.

“The Taliban don’t allow us to leave the area because if we left, they would get exposed to the army and would subsequently face severe military action,” said Muhammad Nawaz, a schoolteacher from the Mamozai area in Upper Orakzai Agency, which is a Taliban base.

“The militants have been using civilians as human shields,” Assistant Political Agent Javid Khan of South Waziristan Agency told IPS. Khan said the military has secured up to 96 percent of the area but is still waiting to move civilians to safer ground before launching a full-scale operation. The Taliban have run out of steam and can no longer fight the army, Khan said, but they are holding the people hostage, causing a delay in military action.

“We are facing problems conducting full-fledged operations,” Assistant Political Administrator Jawad Alam said, mainly because the civilian population remains trapped inside some FATA areas. The FATA, which lies between Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is directly managed by the federal government in Islamabad.

“The government has made elaborate arrangements to accommodate those to be displaced by military action in North Waziristan, but the Taliban aren’t letting them out,” Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told IPS.

In Mohmand Agency, residents say they face an acute shortage of vehicles to transport people to safety because the transporters are also afraid of the militants.

In some areas, the Taliban have erected barricades that prevent vehicles from leaving. The Taliban also search vehicles going out of any agency, said Shafiq Shah of South Waziristan. Civilians bold enough to cross the Taliban checkpoints manage to get to safer places.

“My brothers and their wives and nine children are stranded in Mohmand Agency, as the Taliban wouldn’t permit them to leave,” said 44-year-old Bilal Khan. He managed to reach Jalozai camp near Nowshera, one of the 25 districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but said he is concerned about the safety of his brothers and their families.

“Life in Bajaur is hard because there is a complete breakdown of civic facilities,” said Aziz Ali, a resident of Loi Sam village in Bajaur. Now staying with relatives in Peshawar, he said bazaars were completely shut and there was no other activity back home.

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