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(New York) – Pakistani armed forces and Taliban militants should take all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties in fighting in Pakistan’s volatile Swat valley and adjoining areas of the North West Frontier Province, Human Rights Watch said today.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled their homes since the Pakistani army began major military operations on May 7, 2009, to oust the Taliban from the valley and other areas of the Malakand region of the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA).

“Beheadings and use of human shields by Taliban forces are not a blank check for the Pakistani army,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Winning the war, but also the peace, in Swat can only be achieved by minimizing civilian suffering.”

People fleeing the valley into the town of Mardan told Human Rights Watch that the Taliban had mined parts of the valley and were preventing people from leaving the town of Mingora and outlying areas, effectively using the people there as human shields to deter military attack. Human Rights Watch also received reports from people forced to flee the fighting, that the Taliban are continuing their vigilantism and violent attacks, including killings and public beheadings, particularly in Mingora.

Displaced persons told Human Rights Watch that on May 10, the Taliban shot and killed Maulana Zahid Khan, imam of the central mosque at Nishat Chowk, Mingora, because he had objected to their stockpiling arms and laying landmines. Zahid Khan was dragged into the town square and executed when, accompanied by other local residents, he confronted the local Taliban commanders, telling them that their activities could not possibly be construed as Islamic.

Human Rights Watch also received reports of civilian deaths and the destruction of property in the Pakistani military’s aerial bombardment. However, because the area is a closed military zone with journalists and human rights monitors barred from entering, it is currently not possible to verify this information independently. Local journalists have left the area, and the army is not permitting Pakistani reporters or foreign correspondents to enter. The area is under indefinite curfew, lifted briefly to allow civilians to flee. Power and telephone links to the rest of the country have been severed since April 28. People who fled the valley also reported food shortages there.

Given the scant regard the Taliban and the Pakistani army have in the past shown for the welfare of civilians during fighting in the Swat valley and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about possible civilian deaths and injuries.

“The United States has urged Pakistan to find a military solution to the Taliban,” said Adams. “But it must also send the message that the laws of war must be followed and civilians protected.”

On April 13, President Asif Ali Zardari signed an ordinance imposing Sharia law in the Swat valley and effectively empowering the Taliban and other groups there and in surrounding areas of PATA. But on May 7, in a nationally televised address, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani declared an end to the peace deal with the Taliban, citing multiple violations of the deal by the Taliban and vowing to “eliminate them.”

Since 2007, the Taliban have imposed their authority in Swat and adjoining areas through summary executions – including beheadings – of state officials and political opponents, public whippings, and large-scale intimidation of the population. Girls’ schools have been shut down, women have not been allowed to leave their homes unless escorted by male family members, polio immunization programs were halted, and nongovernmental organizations were expelled. Music and film were banned and stores trading in them destroyed. All men were required to grow beards.

Human Rights Watch has called upon the Pakistani government to arrest those responsible for violations of human rights and hold them legally accountable.

“The Taliban have perpetrated and continue to inflict heinous abuses upon the people of Swat and need to be held accountable,” said Adams. “It is absolutely essential that this barbarism is halted and the rule of law reestablished in Swat and adjoining areas.”

Human Rights Watch said that the Pakistani military in previous operations in FATA had resorted to mass arrests, excessive use of force in policing operations, and collective punishment of the civilian population. While there have been no confirmed reports of such measures during current operations, Human Rights Watch urged the Pakistani military to ensure that such abuses are not repeated.

“Pakistan has to end the cycle of bad fighting followed by making a bad peace,” said Adams. “The lesson of Afghanistan is that the only way of preventing a Taliban resurgence, is for the other party to ensure that its treatment of civilians is humane and respectful, that suffering is minimized rather than exacerbated, and that immediate and sustained relief is provided to the displaced.”

Human Rights Watch called upon concerned governments and international agencies to provide immediate and substantive financial and logistical support to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the fighting. About half a million people were displaced in the North West Frontier Province even before recent fighting began. This number is expected to double within a matter of days.

“Pakistan is facing one of the largest displacements of people seen in South Asia since the partition of India in 1947,” said Adams. “Unless this crisis is dealt with urgently and competently while minimizing the scope for corruption, the humanitarian and political crisis in the region will only worsen.”

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