Refugees flee Pakistan after ceasefire ends

Pakistan is undergoing one of the largest exoduses in its history following Pakistani attacks on Taliban strongholds in the Swat Valley region. Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain estimates that over 500,000 will flee the region now that a large scale offensive has been launched in Mingora, the region’s largest city – a figure amounting to one quarter of the region’s population.

Residents aim to exit the region any way they can, cramming themselves onto buses, cars and lorries or simply getting as far as they can on foot. “It is an all-out war. Rockets are landing everywhere, we have with us the clothes on our bodies and a hope in the house of God. Nothing else,” one resident told the press.

The attacks mark the breaking of a controversial appeasement deal agreed between the Pakistani government and the Taliban, which was settled in February. The government agreed to implement a strict interpretation of Sharia law in Swat Valley in the hope that the Taliban would lay down their arms – something which they did not do. The laws implemented in the region include a ban on women attending school and the eradication of music and dancing.

One commentator accused the Pakistani government of “buying peace at gunpoint.” The government struggle against the Taliban has intensified in the period leading up to the ceasefire with spates of suicide bombings and the burning down of some 170 government-owned buildings.

The timing of the offensive is significant as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are currently in Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama. The Obama administration has demanded that Pakistan and Afghanistan intensify their efforts to unite against the Taliban and President Zardari will hope that the offensive is seen as a show of strength on his part. The US is preparing to deploy more troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan to deal with the insurgencies. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton commented: “We have made this a common cause because we face a common threat. We have a common task, and a common challenge. We know that each of your countries is struggling with the extremists who would destabilise and undermine democracy.”

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