Pakistan: Civilians Fleeing Fighting in Pakistan’s Lower Dir District

Thousands of civilians have abandoned their homes to avoid clashes between Pakistani security forces and the Taleban in the Lower Dir district of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Amnesty International said today.   Eyewitnesses from Maidan Tehseel (subdistrict) in Lower Dir told Amnesty International that bodies were lying on the streets and fields because people were too afraid to move them. At least five civilians were confirmed dead at the district hospital in Timergara, including two women and one girl.   Several villages in Maidan, including Islam Dara, Kankot, Maidan Khas and Lal Qila, seem to have been targeted by government artillery and helicopter gunships after Taleban forces fired on security forces from residential areas. Eyewitnesses could see at least ten houses completely destroyed while another 40 to 50 suffered partial damage.   “Neither the Taleban nor the government forces seem to care about the well-being of the residents of Lower Dir,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director. “The Taleban show no compunction about using civilian areas as combat zones, even knowing that the military will respond with indiscriminate long-distance shelling and aerial bombardment.” Observers in the district’s main town, Timergara, told Amnesty International that thousands of civilians have abandoned their homes in Maidan and moved toward neighbouring areas in Chakdara, Mardan and Charsadda. An eyewitness in Maidan said civilians were moving through the fields in order to avoid the firing on the main roads. A local non-governmental organization working in Lower Dir, Al Khidmat (affiliated with the religiously based political party Jammaat-ul Islami) told Amnesty International that it had recorded at least 33,000 displaced people in the last two days. The civilians fleeing from Lower Dir join more than half a million people already displaced by the fighting, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. “Pakistan is now facing a serious displacement crisis, as hundreds of thousands have been forced out of their homes, including tens of thousands now living in camps formerly used to house Afghan refugees,” Sam Zarifi said. “While the politicians in Islamabad and Washington talk about geopolitics, people in these quiet villages have their lives shattered. It’s about time for the world to turn its attention to the people of NWFP, who are facing severe problems right now.”

Background: Lower Dir is part of the Malakand District of North West Frontier Province, which includes the Swat valley. Under the terms of the peace accord signed on April 14, 2009, between the Pakistani Taleban and the Pakistani government, the Taleban were granted control over Malakand in exchange for laying down their arms. However, since then the Taleban have been encroaching on neighbouring areas. The fighting in Lower Dir began when the Taleban fired on a government convoy moving to the town of Lal Qala. Local government sources told Amnesty International that eight government troops and 47 Taleban fighters had been killed, including Qari Shahid, the Taleban’s commander in the region. Amnesty International could not independently confirm the numbers due to the intensity of the fighting.