Tens of thousands displaced in new Pakistan offensive: officials

Between 56,000 and 100,000 people have fled their homes since Pakistani troops launched a new anti-Taliban offensive in the tribal Khyber district, UN and Pakistani officials estimated Monday.

The military, backed by artillery and helicopter gunships, launched the offensive on September 1 after a suicide bomber killed 22 policemen in Khyber, which lies on the main supply route for Western troops in Afghanistan.

"Over 100,000 people have arrived in Peshawar since the military mounted an offensive," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister in North West Frontier Province.

"We intend to set up a camp for them. We have asked the federal government to provide us assistance to cope with the situation."

Qaiser Afridi, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR, said the ongoing operation in the Bara district of Khyber had displaced between 8,000 and 12,000 families. The families average seven members.

"They are staying with their friends and relatives and we are just getting this data from our implementing partners," Afridi told AFP.

UNHCR has advised the government to prepare assistance for the displaced people, he said. "We are assessing the humanitarian situation there and let's see what the government does."

The Frontier Corps paramilitary, which operates in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt, said eight militants and a soldier were killed in ground fighting in Khyber on Monday.

A "fierce encounter" took place on hilly terrain near Naraikarawal village, in which a "commander Nawaz" and seven other militants from the Taliban-linked Lashkar-e-Islam group were killed, it said in a statement.

Pakistani authorities said Monday they had sacked 715 tribal police who failed to show up for work after Lashkar-e-Islam militant leader Mangal Bagh threatened to demolish their homes and exact other harsh penalties.

The military says it has killed around 170 militants in Khyber but such tolls are impossible to confirm independently.

In April Pakistan launched a major operation to clear the Taliban from Swat and neighbouring northwestern districts.

The offensive forced 1.9 million civilians from their homes. The UN last week said 1.65 million people had returned after the government declared the area free of insurgents.

Fashion Week in New York. AP/Louis Lanzano