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Pakistan Fighting Spurs Civilian Exodus

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. And we begin this hour with the security situation in Pakistan. A two-and-a-half-month-old peace deal with the Taliban in the rest of Swat Valley is rapidly unraveling. Fighting today between Pakistan security forces and militants started a mass exodus. The government says half a million people could leave the valley. In Washington today, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, tried to reassure Congress that the situation could be worse.

Mr. RICHARD HOLBROOKE (U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan): We do not think Pakistan is a failed state. We think it's a state under extreme test. And we have, Mr. Chairman, the same common enemy, the United States and Pakistan.

NORRIS: For more on that extreme test Ambassador Holbrooke mentioned, NPR's Julia McCarthy reports from Islamabad.

JULIA MCCARTHY: The population is on the move in Swat. Thousands of frightened residents fled the verdant valley after an evacuation order ignited fears of an imminent new offensive by Pakistan army. Khalil Mullah escaped what is fast becoming the deserted main city of Mingora. He says his neighborhood, once considered the safest in the city, has now become one of the most dangerous. Speaking from the city of Peshawar tonight, Khalil Mullah says he gathered his family, locked the door of his home and left last night.

Family members who remained behind slept under their beds as the sounds of shelling and shooting reverberated through the night. He says after months of relative quiet, the conflict has gripped the valley once more and forced him to flee for his life.

Mr. KHALIL MULLAH: These things happens in war. I mean, if I'm going on the roadside and they are firing on each other, so automatically my kids are going to school, I'm going to my office. The bullets don't - they recognize the enemy. I mean, if someone comes in front, so you will be killed. The people, they don't have other choice but to leave.

MCCARTHY: The government conceives that the Taliban has captured the offices of the chief civilian administrator and one of the senior most police officers for the region. Eye witnesses say the Taliban militants are occupying the main squares and other strategic positions in the city of Mingora. Shahzad Alam is a journalist for an Urdu language television channel. He lives in Mingora and told NPR the Taliban has effectively taken control of the Swat Valley.

Mr. SHAHZAD ALAM (Journalist): (Through Translator) It looks like the government is helpless and that Swat is totally under the control of the Taliban. They're patrolling the bazaars and they've laid mines in and around Mingora. They attacked a convoy last night killing two security personnel. They also attacked a police station and a power station. And because of that the power grid has completely failed and the whole of Swat Valley is in darkness.

MCCARTHY: The fighting shatters a truce reached in February between the Pakistan government and the Taliban in Swat Valley. Just three weeks ago the government agreed to introduce Sharia, or Islamic law, to the rest of area in the hope that the Taliban would lay down their arms. Instead, the militants took the opportunity to push into the neighboring district of Buner. A Pakistani intelligence report said the Taliban had exploited the truce to regroup and enlist new recruits. Their advance into Buner, a morning's drive from Islamabad, set off alarm here and in Washington.

The army has since launched an offensive to dislodge the Taliban from Buner. The Taliban says it's now avenging that action. Fleeing residents of the Swat Valley said tonight that had the government acted more effectively to halt the Taliban there, the militants' creeping influence would have been checked - a point Washington has been keen to make in recent days.

A scathing editorial today in the newspaper, Dawn, accused the government of being weak-kneed. Tanvir Ahmed Khan is the director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. He says the actions of the Taliban in Swat have proven that truces and negotiations are futile with extremists who behead opponents and burn girl schools.

Mr. TANVIR AHMED KHAN (Director General, Institute of Strategic Studies): It's a grim gory story. It's the battle which has to be won. It's the battle which has to be, you - we cannot afford to lose it. If we lose it we lose Pakistan.

MCCARTHY: The upheaval in Swat is unfolding as President Asif Ali Zardari prepares for what it is expected to be an intense round of meetings with the Obama administration this week. The United States is expected to press Zardari to sustain military campaigns against extremists on Pakistani soil.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julie McCarthy
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.