Pakistanis flee tribal belt fearing air strikes

2014-01-28 22:29
Internally displaced Pakistani tribal civilians flee from military operations against Taliban militants. (Karim Ullah, AFP)

Internally displaced Pakistani tribal civilians flee from military operations against Taliban militants. (Karim Ullah, AFP)

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Bannu - Thousands of villagers have fled their homes in Pakistan's North Waziristan region, fearing a major military operation by armed forces after they said dozens of people had been killed in air strikes targeting Islamist militants earlier this month.

The government says all those who were killed in the swift 21 January operation were militants, but local residents in the volatile region bordering Afghanistan said the death toll included many civilians.

The Pakistani army was not available to comment on the possibility of further operations.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been under intense pressure from hawks within his administration to take aggressive military action against the Taliban after his efforts to engage them in talks floundered in recent months.

The air strikes last week came a day after a Taliban suicide bomber killed 13 people in a crowded market near the capital Islamabad and two days after the Pakistani wing of the Islamist militant group killed 20 troops in the northwest town of Bannu.

Fearing another offensive by armed forces, a wave of refugees left the region to take shelter in schools, private homes and veterinary clinics in the normally more peaceful areas of Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan on the edge of the tribal belt.

A senior official in Bannu said 23 000 refugees had fled to the town.

"Innocent women and children were hit in the air offensive in North Waziristan," said Janaat Bibi, 90, a refugee in Bannu, who added that she was suffering from high fever.

"We walked on foot for several kilometres at night until the bombing died down. Then we got a lift on a tractor and arrived in Bannu."

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