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Thousands Flee Pakistan's Swat, But Many More Left Behind

Pakistan's army continues to bomb Taliban positions in the Swat valley and again lifted a curfew in some places to allow residents to flee. But many civilians have been unable to reach hospitals and refugee camps outside of the war-torn region.

With Swat valley sealed off from reporters and aid workers, there has been little information about the scale of the fighting between soldiers and Taliban militants. The army has released few details. On Thursday, officials reported paramilitary troops killed 10 militants in Lower Dir, including a son of the mediator of the Swat peace agreement, Sufi Muhammad. Military officials say more than 200 militants have been killed in the regional offensive, but have given no estimates on the number of civilian casualties.

Residents fleeing the region report heavy clashes involving airstrikes and artillery barrages. They say roads have been mined, making escape even more treacherous.

While thousands of people have entered hospitals and refugee camps outside the battle zone, there are far fewer than the half-million regional officials have been expecting.

Civilians are not getting far

Red Cross spokesman Sebastien Brack tells VOA it appears that those who decide to leave their homes are not journeying far before seeking refuge.

"What makes it difficult to assess the numbers involved is that most of these displaced people have not been able to actually leave their district," said Brack. "Most of them are actually staying with host families in neighboring villages. They have not reached the camps which the government and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society are setting up."

Officials in nearby Mardan district say that as of Wednesday evening, less than 3,000 people had entered two formal camps for those displaced by violence. Officials estimated another 30,000 people are scattered elsewhere in the district. The officials said registering the displaced has been difficult because many fled quickly, without carrying their identification.

Army offensive could last weeks

Previous attempts to dislodge militants in Swat last year failed after several weeks of fighting. Pakistan's army has said it predicts the offensive could last just one or two weeks. Despite those assurances, Red Cross spokesman Brack says aid workers are preparing for a prolonged humanitarian crisis.

"Based on past experience, when there was fighting in Bajaur in August 2008, the results of that with the IDP population are still with us today," he said. "Given the scale of the fighting we're hearing about in those areas this is going to be a humanitarian crisis for a while."

Even as the military assaults Taliban positions in Swat, politicians have been reluctant to pronounce the peace deal dead. Officials continue to insist that if the Taliban fighters disarm, they are willing to return to plans to implement Islamic law in the region.

On Thursday, there were no signs the Taliban is planning to disarm. Local reports indicated Taliban reinforcements from Dir and Buner district were returning to Swat to bolster fighters who are believed to still control several key towns and villages.