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June 20, 2014

6,000 Flee Pakistan Anti-Taliban Offensive

by Lisa Schlein

The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 6,000 refugees have fled into Afghanistan to escape fighting between Pakistan government forces and Taliban militants in the North Waziristan region.

The agency says it is bracing for a larger exodus if fighting continues to escalate.    

The U.N. refugee agency reports 6,452 Pakistanis have fled into the eastern parts of Afghanistan from North Waziristan. 

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards says his agency is helping authorities in the eastern province of Khost to register and assist those arriving.

“The newly arrived women, men and children trekked across the mountains from Pakistan to seek safety," said Edwards. "They are being accommodated with local Afghan communities for now.  However, clearly these communities have limited resources and absorption capacity to help.”

Edwards says shelter, clean drinking water and sanitation are urgently needed.  He says UNHCR is concerned that families close to where the fighting is raging will be exposed to further violence.  And this, he says, could make it difficult for aid agencies to reach them with humanitarian aid.

Pakistan’s military mounted an offensive to oust al-Qaida-linked Taliban insurgents from North Waziristan June 12, a week after the militant group attacked Pakistan’s biggest airport in Karachi.  That dramatic attack left 36 people dead, including 10 Taliban gunmen.

It also caused cease-fire talks with so-called moderate Taliban to collapse.  This prompted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to launch an all-out assault on North Waziristan to remove the Taliban from their tribal base.

But the fighting is causing a flood of people to flee their homes in search of safety.  The Pakistani government confirms more than 100,000 people have been displaced internally from North Waziristan into several areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

UNHCR spokesman Edwards tells VOA the Pakistani government has not yet asked for assistance, but if it does his agency and others will do what they can to help.  In the meantime, he says his agency will work to assist the thousands of refugees who have fled into Afghanistan.  

“We are always concerned when people are displaced," said Edwards. "The difficulty in this area, as you know, is that it is an insecure area.  It is very difficult to access.  It is mountainous.  Getting help to people there is challenging to say the least.”   

Pakistan has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees for years.  But in a worrying turnabout, Edwards notes this is the first time refugees from Pakistan have fled into Afghanistan.   He says there are no refugee camps in that part of Afghanistan.  He adds the work ahead is daunting.