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(New York) - The Taliban's use of landmines and human shields and the Pakistani army's aerial and artillery attacks are placing civilians at unnecessary risk in the continued fighting in Pakistan's Swat valley, Human Rights Watch said today.

Residents in the town of Mingora, the epicenter of the fighting, told Human Rights Watch that Taliban militants have laid landmines in the town and prevented many civilians from fleeing, using them as "human shields" to deter attack. Pakistani forces appeared to have taken insufficient precautionary measures in aerial and artillery attacks that have caused a high loss of civilian life. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that food and medical supplies were not reaching the population in the embattled area.

"The Taliban's use of landmines and human shields is a sorry addition to their long list of abuses in the Swat Valley," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "They urgently need to let civilians leave areas of fighting."

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) provincial government, told the media on May 17, 2009, that almost 2 million internally displaced persons had been registered by authorities. The government feared the number would rise by another 500,000 in the coming days as fighting continued. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, described the situation as, "a massive, massive displacement in the world today." Hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped in the Swat valley and adjoining troubled areas, and are unable to leave because of fighting.  

Mingora residents told Human Rights Watch that fewer than 10,000 civilians remain in Mingora. Taliban forces have prevented many from leaving, while others are too infirm or poor, or are unwilling to leave. Several thousand Taliban remain in the town. The Taliban also continued to use battery-operated FM radios and patrols to communicate with residents and impose their authority.

Swat residents still in the valley and people fleeing into the towns of Swabi and Mardan told Human Rights Watch that the Taliban had laid landmines in eight places in Sohrab Khan Chowk, a square in the center of Mingora. Sharifabad, a village near the Haji Baba area about three kilometers from Mingora, has been mined in four places. Residents have seen the landmines being planted, and the Taliban told civilians that they would be blown up if they walked on them. The use of antipersonnel landmines - which are inherently indiscriminate in their targets - and holding civilians as human shields are serious violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch said that the Pakistani army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, had given appropriate  instructions  to the army on May 13 to, "ensure  minimum collateral damage even at the expense of taking risks, by resorting to precision strikes." However, Human Rights Watch has received several accounts of high civilian casualties in Pakistani military attacks. On May 8, 35 people, including 14 children and four women, were killed when Pakistani army mortar shells and missiles struck the Shahdra and Wathke neighborhoods of Mingora. Reportedly, none of those killed were Taliban fighters.

On May 11, the military's aerial bombardment of Matta, a Taliban-controlled district in central Swat, resulted in the deaths of at least three women and eight children, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Residents in the area said that on May 14, Pakistani armed forces attacked Taliban-controlled Takhtaband near the Mingora bypass road. Though residents said that civilians died in the attack, they had not been able to recover the bodies or ascertain the number of dead due to an ongoing curfew and the precarious security situation. The laws of war require warring parties to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm and prohibit attacks that do not distinguish between military targets and civilians.

"If Pakistan wants to win not just the battle for Swat but also a sustainable peace, its armed forces need to minimize civilian casualties and suffering," said Adams. "The people of Swat will expect the Pakistani government and armed forces to protect their safety both during the fighting and afterward."   

Human Rights Watch said that because the area where the fighting continues 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 only to allow civilians to flee.

Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern about the humanitarian situation in Mingora. The town remained without electricity and fuel, food supplies were dangerously scarce and all hospitals and medical facilities remained shut. Pakistani authorities should consider all possible mechanisms, including airdrops, to ensure that food, fuel, and medical supplies reach those unable or unwilling to leave the conflict area.

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