SWABI, Pakistan - Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, declared yesterday that the tide had "decisively turned" in the military's battle against Taliban extremists in the Swat Valley, but displaced Pakistanis in a sprawling tent city here said it was still unsafe for them to return home.
The Shah Mansour camp, south of Swat in North-West Frontier Province, was one of two that Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, visited yesterday. In the three weeks since it was set up, its population has swelled to more than 20,000.
In a message he repeated several times, Holbrooke told the Pakistanis here that President Obama and the people of the United States cared about them and were helping the Pakistani government aid them. Even as they spoke, he said, Obama was reaching out to Pakistanis and other Muslims around the world in a major address in Cairo, Egypt.
Holbrooke had announced earlier that Obama had asked Congress for an additional $200 million in emergency aid for the crisis.
More than three million Pakistanis have fled their homes in fighting that began with a government military offensive in the northwest early last month. Most have taken refuge with relatives, friends, or strangers, but at least 200,000 are in hastily erected camps. The Obama administration is concerned that the Pakistani government will risk a Taliban return by failing to permanently secure and reconstruct areas devastated by the fighting.
Holbrooke is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the camps, and he spent several hours meeting with aid workers and refugee representatives, and walking among the rows of room-sized tents baking in the 110-degree heat. When someone looked out of a tent, he asked whether he could come in, then stooped to enter amid staring children and their nervous parents.
He asked where they had come from and what had happened. All told more or less the same story: They fled their cool mountain towns and villages in a rush, bringing nothing but the clothes on their backs, as the army began its offensive.
They had eventually arrived in this broad, arid flatland between the Indus and Kabul Rivers, where Pakistani and international relief groups established camps for them. They hated the heat and the food and had nothing to do but worry about what they had left behind.
"Are you glad the army came in, even though you were driven out of your homes?" he asked a group of men.
"We will be happy when there is peace," one answered. A gray-bearded elder shouted from behind him: "We want this thing to end so we can go back to our own land. We are fed up with living like this."
Taliban extremists detonated a bomb yesterday and opened fire on a vehicle carrying U.S. soldiers, killing three of them.
The ambush took place not far from the main U.S. base in Bagram, just north of the capital, Kabul. It was the third strike by insurgents in the region in less than a week, part of
a surge in violence eight years after the United States invaded to oust
the Taliban regime.
In addition to the three American deaths, one soldier, whose nationality was not released, was injured.
- Associated Press