Pakistan's refugee crisis could worsen

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – Kashif Mehsud shut up shop in his hometown in Pakistan's tribal belt two weeks ago and moved to this river city with 20 relatives, a small group among thousands fleeing what they fear is the next big military offensive against the Taliban.

"All of our town has been quit by the local residents," Mehsud, who ran a phone cafe for those without them in Kot Kai town, told The Associated Press. "Only Taliban and the security forces are seen there. I had to leave because there was no business."

Already grappling with a refugee crisis spawned by fighting in the Swat Valley region, Pakistan is facing a second exodus from North and South Waziristan, strongholds for hardcore al-Qaida and Taliban militants that U.S. and other officials believe must be routed to win the war in Afghanistan and end extremism in Pakistan.

There are no official numbers of refugees flooding into Dera Ismail Khan, Tank and other regional population centers, and no big refugee camps have sprung up as they did near Swat, with relatives and friends absorbing the influx.

One local government official told AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media that through the end of May about 47,000 refugees had fled their homes in South Waziristan. One tribal leader, Faateh Khan, told AP more than 100,000 people from his Bitani clan alone had left their homes, and added that the government should provide them with aid.

No plans have been announced for opening a new front in the tribal districts, where government troops would face well-armed militants hardened by battles in Afghanistan and dug in to the rugged mountains along the border.

But analysts say the military gains and positive public response to the Swat campaign may embolden the military and the civilian government to extend their fight into the tribal areas — if the political will exists to do so.

Pakistan in the past has used militants in the tribal region to press its strategic interests in Afghanistan, including backing the hardline Taliban regime before al-Qaida's 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Shaun Gregory, a Pakistan expert at Britain's Bradford University, said Pakistan's army still sees the Taliban in the tribal areas as a potential instrument to influence the Afghan government and reverse traditional rival India's influence there.

For now, Pakistan's government is talking tough about extending the fight against the militants, but giving no specifics. "Wherever there is a threat, we shall follow," President Asi Ali Zardari said recently when asked about the tribal areas.

Top military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas conceded clashes had intensified in South Waziristan in recent weeks but said it was because the military was responding to more militant attacks, not because a new offensive was starting.

"By escalating attacks in South Waziristan, they want to provoke us and divert our concentration from the operation in Swat," he said. "Why should we go by their design?"

No decision had been made, but "Should the government decide a military operation will be conducted in South Waziristan, the military will go into South Waziristan," he said.

Washington strongly supports the Swat offensive, and is pumping more than $300 million into the effort to care for some 3 million people in Pakistan's northwest who have been uprooted by the fighting.

Any large-scale offensive in the tribal belt would need collaboration with U.S. troops in Afghanistan who could cut the Taliban off if they tried to cross the porous border.

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke held talks with senior government and military leaders in Islamabad last week, and said afterward he was "absolutely comfortable" that Pakistan was serious the problem of militants in the tribal areas.

Security has been fraught for years in the semiautonomous, heavily armed tribal region, where blood feuds are common and the central government has only limited control. Top leaders of al-Qaida and Afghanistan's former Taliban regime are believed to have established strongholds there after fleeing the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Violence between militants and security forces has risen sharply in recent weeks, including a June 5 roadside bombing in South Waziristan that killed four soldiers, and several clashes a week earlier that killed dozens of insurgents and seven soldiers.

Sullivan and Associated Press Writer Ashraf Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad. AP Writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington also contributed.

A young sea turtle is seen on Runduma island, Wakatobi. AFP/File/Adek Berry