(New York) - In the event of military operations in South Waziristan, Pakistani armed forces and Taliban militants should allow civilians sufficient time to evacuate conflict areas to minimize civilian casualties and suffering, Human Rights Watch said today.
During the fighting in the Swat valley, civilians who fled conflict areas from about two dozen locations in Swat and Buner districts from May 4 through June 7, 2009 told Human Rights Watch that the Pakistani army often gave no, or insufficient, advance warning before it began military operations, forcing residents to flee their homes under crossfire. International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict, whenever circumstances permit, to provide effective advance warning of an attack.
"Unlike in past military operations, the Pakistani army in Swat generally seemed to be taking precautions to avoid civilian casualties," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But we are still getting many reports of cases when there wasn't enough advance warning, with dire consequences."
When the army has warned civilians in advance, usually between two and five hours ahead of an attack, it was frequently insufficient advance time for many residents - particularly the elderly, the sick, and families with young children - to reach safe areas. While the curfew has been lifted for evacuations, the army reportedly did not provide any assistance with transportation. Private transport was hired by those who could find and afford it, but others were forced to flee on foot.
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that Taliban forces had greatly increased the risk to civilians by deploying their forces in populated areas and engaging the Pakistani military in hostilities without regard for the civilian population. The Taliban continue to use civilians as cover to flee the Swat valley. They also frequently initiate attacks from occupied homes and then flee, leaving civilians to face retaliatory fire or shelling by the army. The Taliban have also continued to destroy schools and civilian infrastructure in the conflict zone as they retreat.
A mother of four from Buner district told Human Rights Watch that on May 7 the government lifted the curfew in Buner and gave inhabitants four hours to leave the area. By the time the family secured transport a few hours later, the fighting had resumed and one family member was killed and another wounded in the crossfire. She told Human Rights Watch:
"There was an exchange of fire. The Taliban was firing from the lower part of the village, and the army was responding from the mountains. We were in a lorry. But the lorries were few, and there was no room inside for everybody. And so my husband was following us on a bike. Suddenly, a bullet hit him in the chest. We managed to get him to the hospital, but the doctors couldn't save him. My uncle, who was in the lorry with us, was injured - a bullet hit him in the leg and we later took him to a hospital in Peshawar."
Villagers from Khwazakhela reported that in early May the Pakistani army attacked Taliban forces in the village without warning, making it difficult for civilians to leave. Shelling caused at least five civilian deaths. Villagers said that when army tanks entered the village the residents fled into the mountains under mortar fire. A 35-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch:
"We left after our neighbors were killed by the mortar fire. At that time, both Taliban and the army were fighting in the village. In one house, a mortar shell killed a child and three women; in another - two women. Our men told us what happened, and we all decided to run away. We left together with some five or six other families; altogether about a hundred people. As we were leaving the village, we saw tanks in the streets; the army had already entered the village. We could not use the roads because of the intense fighting - we left through the mountains and walked on foot for four days to get out of the area."
Human Rights Watch said that, while most civilians managed to leave the conflict areas, some people had stayed behind in almost every village because they were too poor or sick to leave, or to take care of elderly or sick relatives or their property, livestock, or fields. Thousands of civilians remain there, and both the Pakistan military and Taliban forces should be aware of their presence when conducting military operations.
International humanitarian law requires that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and take all feasible precautions to minimize loss of civilian life and property. These precautions include doing everything feasible to verify that the objects of attack are military targets and not civilians, not deploying in densely populated areas, and giving effective advance warning of attacks when circumstances permit. Even after providing the civilian population advance warning, a warring party is still required to take the remaining civilians into account when attacking the area.
"The Taliban's disregard for civilian life should not be mimicked by the Pakistani military," said Adams. "For warnings of impending attacks to be effective in reducing civilian casualties, the army needs to allow civilians time to evacuate and recognize that not everyone will be able to leave."
Human Rights Watch said that because the Pakistani military has closed the conflict zone to Pakistani and foreign journalists and human rights monitors, it is difficult to obtain and verify information on the fighting. Human Rights Watch called on the Pakistani government and army to open the area to independent observers and the media.
More than 2 million civilians have fled their homes in the Swat valley and adjoining areas of the Malakand division of Pakistan's Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) since the Pakistani army began major military operations on May 7 to oust the Taliban from the valley and surrounding areas. Thousands of civilians, unable or unwilling to flee, remain in the conflict zone. The area is under indefinite government curfew, which is lifted intermittently and briefly to allow civilians to leave or obtain necessities.
"The Pakistani authorities should permit journalists and independent monitors to report on the conduct of the conflict by both the Taliban and the army," said Adams.