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Pakistani assault on militants triggers refugee crisis

TIMERGARA, Pakistan — A Pakistani military assault on Taliban and al Qaida extremists near the Afghan border has unleashed a flood of at least 190,000 displaced people who may be forced to spend the approaching winter in tents and could be marooned for years.

Pakistani authorities claim to have killed more than 1,000 militants in Bajaur, with 17 more reported killed in the last two days, but what was supposed to be a quick military assault against the Islamic extremists along the border with Afghanistan is now in its third month and could be Pakistan's biggest offensive since 9-11.

Washington has criticized Pakistan for appeasing the extremists, but on Monday, Richard Boucher, a visiting U.S. assistant secretary of state, said: "I think it is good that Pakistan is taking serious action against terrorists."

However, if the military extends the action to other areas, the streams of displaced people and the resentment of Pakistan's cooperation with the United States in the war on terrorism are likely to grow.

Many of the newly displaced people are living in squalid, makeshift camps in the adjoining North West Frontier Province where they have no running water, no electricity, no toilets and no heat, and aid workers and officials fear that they may be trapped for years. Others have fled to Afghanistan, according to the United Nations,

Bajaur has been virtually emptied of its inhabitants, officials said. At least 10 camps run by the government now house tens of thousands from Bajaur, others have taken shelter with family and friends and as many as 100,000 have fled hundreds of miles to the southern port city of Karachi.

A grim settlement has taken shape on a hillside outside the town of Timergara, which borders Bajaur. The month-old camp there has just started a rudimentary open-air school for younger children, taught by the older kids, and a clinic has been established.

There now are 880 families at the Timergara camp, or some 6,260 individuals, most of them children, according to the official in charge. Most families are allotted one tent each, which means that eight or more people must share it.

"We don't have enough water to drink, let alone the chance to bathe," said Gul Mohammad, 25, who arrived with seven family members. "We brought nothing. We just came here to save our lives."

Toilet facilities, so far, are a communal ditch or a trip to the nearby river. There's no electricity, and water is trucked in. Food is distributed by the government and aid agencies, but the refugees said it was inadequate and that they were forced to scavenge or buy wood to cook it.

"First we thought this would be for a month. It looks like years to me now," said Abdul Hameed, the Pakistani official who runs the facility. "We have stopped more coming in. There is no space left."

Winter, now setting in, is bitterly cold in Timergara, but the refugees said they didn't even have blankets. Their anger is directed mostly at the Pakistani authorities, not at the Taliban, for launching the operation and for the miserable conditions they now endure. They charge that Bajaur is being pounded indiscriminately by jet fighters and helicopter gunships and that most of the casualties are innocent civilians.

"Even when a 2-year-old dies in a strike, they (the army) say in the media that he was Taliban or al Qaida," said Rahim Gul, who'd come from a village close to Damadola, an alleged hotbed of Islamic militancy. "It's a double game they're playing. They don't hit the Taliban's houses, they hit ours."

Tribesmen rarely criticize the Taliban, probably out of fear, but the refugees report large-scale destruction of homes and civilian deaths from the army bombardment. The chief spokesman for the Pakistan army said he had no figures for civilian casualties.

"A missile struck my house. They (the army) even hit the village mosque," said Mohammed Jan. "They are willing to hit mosques, so what chance is there that they will spare poor people?"

"Houses are being used by the militants as bunkers. They're firing from there. Therefore, all houses from where the firing is coming are being engaged by the security forces," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. "To our knowledge, the civilians of this area have left."

A man who gave his name only as Sherpao said: "It is the fault of both sides. The army throws bombs on us from above. The Taliban terrorize us on the ground. We just want peace. We don't care who wins."

Around Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, three old Afghan refugee camps, cleared of their inhabitants in the last year, have been pressed back into service, this time for Pakistanis from Bajaur.

The mud houses in the vast Kacha Garhi camp mostly were bulldozed after the Afghans left, and the camp is now a desolate tented home for 5,500 people from Bajaur.

An old man, Mohammad Amin, said he'd been passed from camp to camp. "When will we get the blankets and bedding? After dying?"

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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