Thousands of people have fled their homes in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal district for fear a military offensive against Taliban insurgents is imminent, residents and officials said on Sunday.
Residents said some 1,500 families or about 13,000 people left their villages around the towns of Mir Ali and Miranshah in North Waziristan, to migrate to relatively safer areas outside the tribal areas in Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and Peshawar.
The exodus began last week when Pakistan Air Force fighter jets bombarded the area following a series of militant attacks on security forces and civilians which killed more than 100 people in a week.
North Waziristan is one of seven semi-autonomous regions in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan and governed by tribal laws.
It is said to be a hub of al-Qaeda and Taliban-led militants and the US has long urged Pakistan to launch a full-scale military operation in the area.
Pakistan has so far declined, owing to its own strategic calculations and fears of a militant backlash in major cities.
“Around 1,500 families and up to 13,000 people have left several villages in North Waziristan,” Rafiullah, 25, a resident of Musaki village in Mir Ali, said.
“People are unable to find houses to go to in Bannu, so many women, children and old men are lying out in the open. Many others have gone to Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan districts to find some shelter,” he said.
Pakistani government officials said that up to 8,000 people had arrived in Bannu, a town bordering North Waziristan.
“We can estimate up to 700 families and around 8,000 people have arrived in Bannu,” Arshad Khan, head of the FATA Disaster Management Authority, said.
“No military operation has been announced in the tribal area. So there are no instructions to make arrangements for the internally displaced people,” he added.
Another government official in Miranshah said a military operation was not on the cards.
“No military operation is going to take place in Miranshah and Mir Ali. So people should not leave their houses and should stay there,” said Siraj Ahmed Khan, a senior administration official.