Pakistanis pour into camps

     

    As hundreds of thousands flee the fighting between the army and the Taliban, a refugee crisis looms.
    By Nahal Toosi
    The Associated Press

    MARDAN, Pakistan — Men lined up in the baking sun and children held empty food bowls as hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis fled the battle between the army and the Taliban, raising the risk Monday that public support could turn against an offensive the United States sees as a must-win battle.

    The U.S. announced $4.9 million worth of aid for the refugees, many of whom arrived in the camps empty-handed and questioning how they would survive.

    'It's hell for us,' said Zaida Bibi, 20, as she glanced around her accommodations, a mostly bare tent in the Mardan area, its floor covered by a thin tarp.

    At least 360,000 Pakistanis displaced by recent fighting have registered in camps and other centers since early May, the U.N. said. That's on top of about 500,000 people displaced by offensives that date to August 2008 — though it's unclear how many of those remain refugees.

    Most of the newly displaced are expected to stay with relatives or friends, but about 30,000 are settling into U.N. camps, spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said. The agency announced Monday that it will airlift 120 tons of relief supplies to help refugees in the region.

    The military operation is focused in the Swat Valley, a major Taliban stronghold, and surrounding districts. Pakistani warplanes bombed suspected insurgent positions Monday, while the government claimed it had killed up to 700 Taliban in four days of fighting.

    Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the government, which had urged residents to leave the region, was devoting millions of dollars to help the refugees.

    At a Mardan camp where about 12,000 people had already settled, Naheed Amir, a health worker with the aid group Ummah Welfare Trust, said she was seeing more than 300 patients a day, with a range of illnesses from diarrhea to eye infections.

    'The situation is for now under control,' she said. 'I'm afraid difficulties may arise because of a lack of hygiene.'

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