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Pakistani Refugees Trickle Home to Swat Valley

BY Admin  July 13, 2009 at 11:35 AM EST

Pakistani refugees in camp; Daniel Berehulak/Getty

Convoys of military-protected buses and trucks began shuttling families back to Swat from huge refugee camps that have sprung up in recent months in nearby regions. After a February peace deal collapsed, Taliban forces began expanding their control of the northwestern region. Pakistan sent the army into the valley in April to uproot the militants, forcing a civilian exodus that became one of the largest human migrations in recent years.

But while many refugees are eager to return home after spending months in government-run camps, security back home remains a concern.

Government officials say more than 1,700 militants and nearly 160 soldiers have been killed in the operation. But the leaders of the Taliban reportedly remain untouched and are believed to be hiding in Swat. There are fears that escaped militants could easily reemerge among the civilian population and reignite fighting.

“It was the security reason that forced us to leave our homes, and if it is still there when we go back then we will be forced to leave our homes again,” Mohammad Rehman, 36, in a camp in Charsadda, told the Wall Street Journal.

The government expects the three-phased repatriation to take up to two weeks. But the logistics of such a large-scale operation may be more than the Pakistani government can handle, say refugee advocates.

“The Pakistani government is sending people home far too early,” Kristele Younes, of Refugees International, told the Guardian. “Displaced people should be the ones to determine whether it is safe for them to return, and we fear the government is not providing them with clear and accurate information.”

Confusion over the terms of the government’s plan were evident Monday when thousands of refugees were turned back by the military because they did not yet have permission to return, according to media reports. Other refugees refused to go back unless they were given a promised 25,000 rupees ($306) in government aid.

In central Pakistan, meanwhile, an explosion destroyed a house used as a religious seminary, killing at least nine people, seven of them children. Police said they had evidence the home had been used as a meeting place for militants, though the cause of the blast is unknown.