PESHAWAR/BANNU: Residents of North Waziristan have until the end of Monday to leave the remote mountainous North Waziristan tribal 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 neighbouring Afghanistan, the biggest movement of refugees in Pakistan in years.
“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 Miramshah. “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.
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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.
Refugees said settlements in North Waziristan tribal region 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.
WFP distributes aid
The World Food Programme on Monday began distributing aid for hundreds of thousands of people who have fled a military operation in North Waziristan tribal region, as refugees clashed with authorities over delays.
Pakistan began Zarb-i-Azb, a long-awaited military offensive aimed at eliminating Taliban militants from their stronghold in the North Waziristan tribal district, last week, following a brazen attack on the country's busiest airport in Karachi.
The operation, involving air strikes, tanks and heavy artillery has forced the exodus of more than 400,000 people, mainly to the nearby town of Bannu just outside the tribal zone.
It has left nearly 280 militants dead, according to the army, but the figure cannot be independently verified.
Safiullah Khan, an official with a local non-government organisation partnered with the WFP, said a food distribution point in Bannu had begun providing rations including wheat flour, cooking oil, lentils and high energy biscuits.
“We have made all necessary arrangements, which are enough to cater to ration needs of 15,000 families on daily basis,” he said.
|Civilians, fleeing from a military operation in North Waziristan tribal region, wait in line at the Bannu Frontier Region registration centre for internally displaced people in Saidgai on June 22, 2014. — Photo by AFP|
Around 2,000 people had gathered at a local football ground where the food centre was set up to wait for the first consignment of trucks.
They later scuffled with police when distribution was delayed by several hours, who fired in the air to disperse the protestors.
Noor Bat Khan, a 60-year-old resident from Esori village in North Waziristan criticised authorities for taking so long to act and not creating enough centres.
“The authorities should set up more distribution points as it will be difficult for the displaced persons to wait for their turn in scorching heat,“ he said.
According to a government spokesman, a total of 404,819 people have so far left North Waziristan after the start of the military offensive.
Meanwhile influential warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur held talks with a tribal jirga, or council, in North Waziristan where he repeated a threat to join forces with the Taliban if the offensive continued.
“Bahadur said he would not launch any retaliatory action against military troops operating in the region until the middle of August provided the government agrees to stop the offensive enabling the refugees to return to their homes,” a spokesman for the jirga, Malik Fida told AFP.
Bahadur fought against the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan and later against US forces after 2001, but signed a peace deal with the Pakistani military in 2006.