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The head coordinator for the U.N. Humanitarian Affairs office in Pakistan says his agency is ready to handle what is expected to be a large number of families fleeing the South Waziristan tribal region as the government intensifies its fight against the Taliban. At the same time, police say a suicide bomber killed 5 people Monday, including a tribal leader allied with the government.
Authorities say the suicide attack occurred near a police checkpoint outside Bannu, the third bombing in as many days.
Officials say the bomber rammed a car filled with explosives into a vehicle carrying tribal leader Maulana Abdul Hakeem, as he traveled to a nearby peace committee meeting.
Analysts say Hakeem had been instrumental in brokering deals with the government, allowing security forces access to the nearby Waziristan tribal regions to target Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
U.N. Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs head for Pakistan, Manuel Bessler, tells VOA families have been fleeing South Waziristan in anticipation of a new military offensive.
"We have from South Waziristan already now about roughly 80,000 internally displaced people. That means people that left the district of South Waziristan and are in Dera Ismail Khan or in Tank, looking for shelter, for a safer place to be," Bessler said.
Local media reports say military helicopters have dropped pamphlets in the area, warning residents to leave. The government used a similar strategy before the offensive in and around the Swat Valley that started last April.
The government insists it is not launching any major operation in South Waziristan at the moment, but Bessler says his office is ready.
"We expect indeed more people to leave the district and have accordingly beefed up our readiness for food and non-food items," said Bessler.
He says they rely on Pakistani government agencies, particularly at the district level, to help those displaced.
While they are ready in the material sense, Bessler says there are other concerns.
"Security is something that we have to take very serious[ly] in such a volatile environment as southern NWFP [and] we [also] had to look into it in Malakand," Bessler said.
South Waziristan is a major stronghold for Taliban and al-Qaida militants. It also boasts treacherous terrain and is expected to get brutally cold in the coming months.
On Monday, a message allegedly from al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared on a jihadist Web site praising the former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in South Waziristan.
This is the first public acknowledgment from al-Qaida of Mehsud's death in August.