Pakistani refugees, displaced by fighting in the tribal north, receive aid provided by the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Ali Sher district of Khost province, Afghanistan [AP]

News of clashes in Pakistan's tribal areas and the fate of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting have been overshadowed by the country's focus on Islamabad's growing power struggle.

The concerted campaign by the coalition government to remove Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, from power has shifted focus from a developing humanitarian crisis in the north.

According to government estimates, some 219,000 have been displaced as the military and tribal fighters battle for territorial control following a string of failed peace agreements in the once-scenic Swat Valley and Bajaur Agency, a district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Rehman Malik, the advisor to the prime minister on interior affairs, told the media that 462 "militants" and 22 security personnel have lost their lives in the ongoing military operations.

However, these figures do not quite reveal the catastrophic situation that is rapidly gnawing at the integrity of this South Asian nation.

Ostensibly, the Taliban is fighting to enforce Sharia (Islamic law) in the region but have shown no remorse in using the local population as a collective human shield against Pakistani military operations.

Mass exodus

The residents have been advised by the security forces to leave their homes and seek sanctuary.

"It is not easy to leave your home. We expected the army to supervise the evacuation, which is the least they could have done to provide some sort of security but it has not happened," Sher Afzal, a resident who escaped the fighting in Bajaur Agency, said.

Further compounding the mass exodus is the steady stream of refugees fleeing from the adjoining Mohmand Agency. They have sought shelter in Peshawar, the capital of the Frontier province, and in nearby Dir and Malakand.

The Frontier government has asked for immediate financial assistance of Rs1.5 billion ($19.7 million) to cope with such massive displacement.

"There are hundreds of thousands of people waiting for help and we don't have the wherewithal to cope with the situation," an official of the provincial government said.

This has created a bind for the security forces who were caught between using force to flush out "militants" or doing nothing and thereby saving the innocent population caught in the crossfire.

They chose the first option even at the risk of collateral damage; this resulted in a high number of civilian casualties.

But not taking on the Taliban, experts have agreed, was not a viable option given the proclivity of their fighters to assimilate into local populations and use the breathing space to re-launch attacks.

"We have two options: either to keep mum and hand over the country to [the] Taliban or take action," the interior advisor said.

Tearing the script

At least six Pakistani troops were killed and 15 others injured in clashes with the Taliban [AFP]
In Swat, the situation is as tense as ever. The provincial government has come under pressure for trying to return to a now defunct peace agreement with the tribal fighters.

"The peace agreement signed in May is intact and the government is ready to hold negotiations to end unrest," Bashir Bilour, the senior minister and head of the government's peace committee, said.

But he also conceded the fighters had breached the pact.

The provincial government re-launched the military operation on July 29 after the Taliban-allied fighters threatened, but failed, to force the government to resign. They violated the peace accord by attacking security forces and torching girl schools. 

More aid needed

But some tribesmen are now taking security affairs into their own hands, taking the fight to the Taliban-allied fighters and earning support from Islamabad.

The federal government announced an award of Rs500,000 (US$6,560) and a Kalashnikov rifle each for a few tribesman who had shot dead six fighters in Buner three days ago.

But Pakistanis are urging the government to at least apply the same anti-Taliban initiative to provide much needed shelter.

The provincial government has set up eight camps for the displaced, which the central government later upped statistically, by five more.

However, even these 13 camps are just not enough for the homeless.

A provincial government official, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera: "We are facing this situation because of the military action in the tribal region. It is therefore, the responsibility of the federal government to provide financial assistance."

Kamran Rehmat is a news editor with Dawn News, a Pakistani TV channel.

Source: Al Jazeera