Civilians say they're casualties of Pakistan's fight against the Taliban

MARDAN, Pakistan — The Pakistani army denies knowing that its war against Islamic militants has caused civilian casualties, but patients and family members at a local hospital told McClatchy Thursday that multiple relatives were killed when the military shelled or bombed their homes.

So far, there appear to be just a handful of civilian casualties from the fighting in Swat, a valley 100 miles from Islamabad. More of them, however, along with damage to homes and businesses and the plight of the hundreds of thousands who've been displaced by the fighting, could undermine hard-won public support for fighting the Taliban.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani recognized the danger, telling parliament Thursday: "Militarily we will win the war, but it will be unfortunate if we lose it publicly."

On a visit Thursday to the District Headquarters (DHQ) hospital in Mardan, the first major town reached by those fleeing the war zone, a McClatchy reporter found doctors and nurses struggling to cope with civilian casualties

Fareedon, a 36-year-old who goes by one name, was lying in a bed at the simply equipped and poorly maintained DHQ hospital. He said that he lost three of his children, a 12-year-old boy and girls aged 8 and 5, when a mortar hit their house in Landkhai village in the southwest corner of Swat. He said that 10 to 12 houses and a school in the village were shelled on May 11. He was injured in the foot and the thigh.

"It (mortars) is falling on our houses," said Fareedon. "Ordinary people die. Not one Taliban has been killed."

At Aboha village, also in southwest Swat, a shell killed six people, said Sajjad Khan, 18, who'd brought his injured 13-year-old brother, Sohail, to the hospital. They said they lost a sister and a cousin, and another wounded cousin lay on a nearby hospital bed.

"What is this child guilty of?" said Sajjad, pointing to his brother. "What is the guilt of those that died?"

He said they tried calling an ambulance but none would come because of a curfew.

In another bed was 8-year-old Aktar Mina, with a broken leg. In a two-hour attack, missiles or bombs from fighter planes hit several homes on Sunday in her village in Gut Peochar, a remote part of Swat that reputedly is a Taliban stronghold, according to relatives crowded around her bed.

Her mother carried her for four days until they could find transportation, said the girl's cousin, 30-year-old Saeed Afzal. Eight people were killed, including the girl's aunt and seven of the neighbors' children who were taking shelter in the house, he said.

"When the fighting began, the Taliban all vanished. It is ordinary people being bombed," said Afzal.

There was no way to verify the stories independently, and according to doctors at the hospital, there are only a few patients with injuries from the fighting in Swat, with four admitted on Wednesday, for instance.

"We were expecting much more than this. There's no rush of the injured. It is a mystery," said Dr. Wajid Ahmed, of the casualty department.

It's possible that the badly injured haven't been able to make it out of the war zone, said doctors, who're also coping with an outbreak of disease among the "internally displaced people" who're living in giant camps on the city outskirts.

The hospital's main concern now is a flood of people with diseases caused by poor hygiene and overcrowded conditions. Out of the 582 patients seen at the hospital Wednesday, 283 were refugees from the fighting in Swat and the surrounding districts, and most fell ill in the camps.

There were three or four babies and young children on most of the mattresses in the children's ward, where 28 exhausted little patients occupied the 10 beds. All the children were suffering from dangerous acute diarrhea.

"Let's hope this (war) ends soon. Otherwise, as the weather gets hotter, it will be a disaster," said Ahmed.

The Pakistani army has either declined to answer questions about civilian casualties or said it has no record of any. However, the army has produced precise claims for the number of Taliban it's killed. Earlier this week, the army said 751 militants had been killed, and Thursday officials added 54 more.

Past Pakistani military operations against Islamic militants in Swat and in the tribal belt along the Afghan border have caused significant civilian casualties and collateral damage to houses, businesses and other buildings.

Human Rights Watch warned earlier this week that the army must avoid civilian casualties, and the army repeated its pledge to take care of civilians.

"The security forces are making all efforts to minimize collateral damage, and therefore we have changed some of our plans to ensure that we do not cause collateral damage," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman, at a news briefing Thursday. "We have taken all measures to avoid fighting in populated areas so far."

Thousands of residents remain trapped in Mingora, Swat's biggest town, which has no electricity, no running water and dwindling food supplies. Many Taliban militants are believed to be holed up there, and Abbas said that the army wants as many people as possible to be leave Mingora before the anticipated "street-to-street" fighting begins in the town.

On May 8, the Pakistani army launched its "full-scale" operations to wrest back control of Swat valley from Taliban extremists. Some 15,000 troops are involved.

Since the fighting began, the army said that some 750,000 people have fled Swat and the surrounding districts, increasing Pakistan's population of "internally displaced people" to 1.3 million. Hundreds of thousands already had been made homeless by anti-Taliban operations elsewhere in the northwest part of the country.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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