Donations to help Pakistan's refugees reach $200 million

1.9m have fled as fight goes on against Taliban

By Chris Brummitt
Associated Press / May 22, 2009
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ISLAMABAD - Donations to help refugees fleeing Pakistan's latest offensive against the Taliban surpassed $200 million this week as the country's allies sought to ease a crisis that risks eroding public support for military action against the militants.

About 1.9 million people have fled the fighting in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas, a mountainous region not far from the Afghan border where the Taliban have found safe haven in recent years. More than 160,000 people are staying in sweltering camps just south of the battle zone; the rest have been taken in by relatives.

The United Nations has set up tent schools at the camps. At one, teachers drilled dozens of kids sitting cross-legged on mats before giving them packets of biscuits as an incentive to return.

"Children have to continue to go to school," said Daniel Poole, regional director of the UN's children's fund. "It's what makes things feel normal again, even in this context that's so abnormal."

The army says it has killed more than 1,000 militants and won back swaths of territory, but it faces stiff resistance from up to 5,000 well-trained and equipped fighters and has ventured no prediction of when the Taliban will be defeated.

The government organized a donors conference attended by representatives of foreign countries and aid groups to raise money to look after the refugees from the region, which was popular with skiers and holiday makers before the Taliban took over, enforcing an ultra-hardline brand of Islamic law and beheading opponents.

Hina Rabbani Khar, a government official overseeing the relief effort, said foreign donors had pledged $224 million to help the displaced. The total includes $110 million pledged Tuesday by the United States.

Pakistan's government, which is relying on foreign loans to keep the economy afloat, has said it will spend $100 million. Khar said the UN would issue an appeal for more funds.

The government launched the offensive last month, after the militants violated a peace deal and advanced to within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad.

The army operation has so far enjoyed broad support, but analysts have warned that could ebb - as happened in early operations in the Northwest - if the refugees are seen to be neglected.

US officials are scrambling to help the pro-Western government manage the refugee crisis and encourage it to sustain and expand its military action to other areas of the border region, where Al Qaeda and Taliban are ensconced.

Rear Admiral Michael A. LeFever, the top US military official at the US Embassy in Islamabad, forecast that 200,000 to 250,000 people will be living in refugee camps through year's end.