ISLAMABAD – Pakistan said Tuesday it was racing to help refugees fleeing a military offensive against the Taliban in its northwest – an exodus of some 1.5 million with a speed and size the United Nations said could rival the displacement caused by Rwanda’s genocide.
The humanitarian challenge comes as the military said its troops are fighting street battles against insurgents in key towns in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and amid government denials that the country is expanding its nuclear stockpile.
Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, who leads a group tasked with dealing with the uprooted Pakistanis, told reporters that the government had enough flour and other food for the displaced but said it needed donations of fans and high energy biscuits. He also said the refugees would get money and free transport when it was safe enough to return.
A “camp is not a replacement for home,” Ahmed said, adding there are at least 22 relief camps operating.
The U.S. has praised Pakistan’s military operation in Swat and surrounding districts, which comes amid long-standing American pressure on its Muslim ally to root out al-Qaida and Taliban hide-outs along the border with Afghanistan. Militants in those sanctuaries threaten American and NATO troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s own future, U.S. officials warn.
Whether Pakistan’s will to take on the militants will falter could depend on the fate of its displaced citizens, many now stuck in the sweltering camps.
UN officials said Monday that nearly 1.5 million people had fled their homes in Pakistan this month.
Earlier offensives had caused another 550,000 people to flee, though Ahmed said Tuesday that 230,000 people had returned to Bajur, a tribal region overrun by the Taliban that underwent a lengthy operation.
As far as the uprooting caused by the new offensive, which dates back to April, “it has been a long time since there has been a displacement this big,” said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency.
In trying to recall another such displacement in so short a period, Redmond said “it could go back to Rwanda” – a reference to the 1994 massacre of ethnic Tutsis by the majority Hutus in the African country.
The UN believes around 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the displaced are in camps at the moment – around 250,000 in some 24 facilities, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said. Most others are probably staying with host families, living in rented accommodation or other places.
“The situation is volatile and changing rapidly,” Holmes said at UN headquarters in New York.
Redmond, speaking in Geneva, said a lack of help for the displaced and the many thousands of families hosting them could cause more “political destabilization” for the country.
At a congressional panel last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked whether there was evidence that Pakistan was adding to its nuclear weapons systems and warheads during what is a sensitive time.
He simply replied: “Yes.”
But Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira denied that assertion Monday.
“Pakistan does not need to expand its nuclear arsenal, but we want to make it clear that we will maintain a minimum nuclear deterrence that is essential for our defense and stability,” he said. “We will not make any compromise.”
Pakistan, a poor country of 170 million people, is thought to possess more than 60 nuclear weapons under a program that began when its traditional enemy, India, started producing them.
The advance of the Taliban has raised some concerns in the West that the weapons may one day fall into militant hands. A more likely scenario, analysts say, is that Islamists may infiltrate its nuclear facilities and get hold of nuclear knowledge and material.
Pakistan says more than 1,000 militants have been killed so far in the offensive, a claim impossible to verify because journalists have largely been barred from the battle zone. It has not given any figures for civilian casualties, but refugees say they have occurred.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Monday that infantry troops were moving into the main towns of the region after three weeks of mostly aerial bombardment of insurgent positions, camps and training grounds in the hills.
He said the army wanted a “quick and speedy operation so we can clear the area and allow the internally displaced people to return.”