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Fierce fighting in Pakistan drives 1 million from homes

MARDAN, Pakistan (BP)–Relief workers are mobilizing to identify ways Southern Baptists can help some of the estimated 1.2 million people who have fled Pakistan’s Swat Valley as their country’s military inflicts heavy casualties on Taliban insurgents who control the area.

“This is being called by some the worst internally displaced person emergency in recent times,” said Francis Horton, a Southern Baptist who directs work in South Asia for Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization. “Field partners are in the process of assessing the needs and what is already being done or planned to be done so we can then fill the gaps and meet needs that might otherwise go unmet. We will work with them to assess what response will be most strategic.”

The United Nations’ refugee agency said Monday that 1.2 million people from Swat and two adjoining districts in northwest Pakistan have registered as “internally displaced people,” according to the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper. Barely 10 percent, however, are living in the camps opened to accommodate them.

“It looks like the vast majority is opting out of the camps in favor of staying with relatives or taking a place on rent,” Horton said. “Somewhere around 80 percent of the displaced people are women and children.”

Pakistani authorities said Monday more than 1,000 militants have been killed since they launched their assault on the Taliban April 26, the AFP news service reported. The government puts it own losses at 46 soldiers. The Pakistani government had signed an agreement with the Taliban in February that would allow the Taliban to implement Sharia law in the Swat Valley in return for ending their year-long insurgency. Taliban militants, however, quickly moved into surrounding districts as close as 60 miles to the capital and even made shows of force in the Karachi area, some 700 miles away.

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani recently convened the country’s political parties to demand the Taliban to disarm and said the government intends to “eliminate” the threat Islamist militants pose to the nation’s sovereignty.

The military said Monday that as many as 15,000 troops were fighting about 4,000 Taliban fighters in Swat, where troops reportedly are closing in on Mingora, the capital. Pakistan President Asif Zardari said the army also will move on Waziristan, the remote, rugged area where the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda and Afghan insurgents are based.

Zardari told London’s Sunday Times newspaper: “Swat is just the start. It’s a larger war to fight.”

The United Nations is establishing “humanitarian hubs” in Pakistan to provide help to people who are staying outside of the camps, Horton said. The agency also has opened up stockpiles in Pakistan to provide locally obtained relief items such as tents, kitchen sets, sleeping mats and blankets. The UN also announced it would conduct an airlift to bring additional urgently needed supplies from Dubai. Those supplies are expected to include plastic sheeting, mosquito nets and two large portable warehouses.

“We will take the field partners’ assessments and put together a response that will help people in the best way we can,” Horton said. “Some of the initial needs will be food, water, toiletries, cooking utensils and livelihood.”
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press. Baptist Global Response is on the Internet at gobgr.org.

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