Pakistan says more than 300,000 people, including women and children have left its North Waziristan border district where an army counter-terrorism offensive is under way. But a senior minister has rejected U.N. reports that thousands of Pakistanis have also fled into Afghanistan to seek safety.
The military undertook the offensive more than a week ago (June 15) to flush out local and foreign fighters from the volatile Waziristan region. These extremists are said to be involved in insurgent attacks in Pakistan and across the Afghan border.
Army officials say they have killed more than 260 militants in and around the war zone, mostly foreigners they say, while several soldiers have died in retaliatory attacks. Independent confirmation of the accounts is difficult because the area is not accessible to journalists and aid workers.
But the fighting has caused a flood of people to flee Waziristan. Federal Minister Abdul Qadir Baloch is supervising relief operations for the internally displaced people. He told VOA that the number of refugees was swelling by the day, and was expected to go well beyond 400,000.
The minister said families were being provided with food, drinks and cash to meet their urgent needs, while long-term arrangements to support the displaced are also being worked out. However, Baloch said few families have shown up at the relief centers.
"We have established camps for them at four different points. [Bannu, Tank, Dera Islamil Khan and Lucky Marwat town]. Tendency so far observers is that people coming out of North Waziristan, they do not like to stay in camps. They prefer to go to different areas to their relations, to take houses on rent and live elsewhere instead of living in the camps. This is because of their traditions and customs not to expose female members to the community,” he said.
Pakistani officials said that shortly after the army offensive began, the local administration assisted 400 Afghan refugee families to return to Afghanistan from a border village in North Waziristan. Baloch acknowledged a few Pakistanis may also have crossed the border in search of safety, but he rejected U.N. reports that more than 6,000 Pakistanis have taken refuge in eastern Afghan areas.
“So far that figure is not known. We were told that about 30 people [from Pakistan have gone there]. But we don’t have reports [of major exodus in that direction and] of course [figures] of thousands is totally wrong. This is misinformation,” said Baloch.
He said that Pakistan has so far not asked the U.N. or other international groups to assist in tackling the refugee crisis.
“We are not going to request anybody to come to our help. We are going to take care of our problem ourselves and are capable of doing so. But if some country or some [foreign] organization, if they want voluntarily to contribute something to this great humanitarian problem, which is being confronted by Pakistan we will welcome that,” he said.
Baloch, a former army general, said that security forces have cordoned off entire areas in Waziristan where counter-terrorism operations were under way in order to prevent militants from fleeing. He added that Islamabad had “arrangements with the Afghan government" that they should make sure nobody (militants) crosses to that side of the border.
Responding to reports that the army operation could go on for months in view of the difficult mountainous terrain, the Pakistani minister said “our desire is that it should meet its ends and it should be as short as possible."