Reports claim that dozens of civilians have been killed in a Pakistani air strike in North Waziristan. A military offensive against the Taliban is underway in the area, but activists warn of a humanitarian crisis.
The Pakistani army's ongoing offensive against militant Islamists has so far displaced around a million people from the restive North Waziristan region. Since the start of air strikes against the Taliban last month, thousands of people have also fled to neighboring Afghanistan. Hundreds and thousands of people are staying in refugee camps in nearby cities and waiting for much-needed humanitarian aid.
On June 30, the military operation further intensified after weeks of areal bombings as ground troops moved into the northwestern town of Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold. The Pakistani army claims that around 500 local and foreign insurgents have been killed in the operation. It reported no civilian casualty.
But a claim made by the French news agency, AFP, that a government air strike last week killed at least 37 civilians - including 20 women and 10 children, has caused a huge uproar in Pakistan. Eye witnesses confirm the claims and say the Pakistani air force indiscriminately bombed residential areas in the Shawal Valley of Waziristan on Wednesday, July 16.
"It (the bombing) continued for hours, targeting 11 houses," Malik Mirzal Khan, a tribal elder who lost his daughter and brother in the strikes, told AFP. He added that the residents had made a list of the dead, and none of them were militants.
The Pakistani military's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) office denies these claims. An ISPR official says the military is only targeting militants' hideouts. "We make sure that no civilian is targeted," an official told DW's Islamabad correspondent, Shakoor Rahim, on condition of anonymity.
Rights activists, however, demand a thorough and impartial investigation of the incident.
"A number of Shawal residents and local reporters have confirmed civilian casualties. If the army doesn't launch a proper investigation, people are going to doubt its intentions," Zulfiqar Bhatta, an Islamabad-based lawyer and human rights activist, told DW.
Some observers also say that the Taliban and the al Qaeda-linked militants in North Waziristan are using civilians as "human shields," which is resulting in civilian deaths and making it difficult for the Pakistani forces to go after the insurgents. They are of the view that the Pakistani authorities usually inform the local people before starting an airstrike or a ground offensive.
But the residents say they are never informed. They told DW the facts about the July 16 strike would eventually come out despite the army's claims. "America is our enemy, but it has never taken such cruel action against us," a tribal leader told AFP.
Islamabad condemns the US drone strikes against the militants in Waziristan and claims that more civilians die in these attacks than terrorists.
Rights activists tell DW the mass exodus from the tribal areas is the biggest the country has witnessed in years, and that the military operation is resulting in a huge humanitarian crisis in the insurgency-marred and poverty-stricken area.
Activist Sartaj Khan says Islamabad is only focused on bombing the area and is least concerned about providing relief to Waziristan refugees. "It is shameful that these people are not being allowed to enter major Pakistani cities," Khan told DW. "Authorities claim that the Taliban could flee the area along with refugees. The attitude of Pakistan's liberal community is appalling towards these poor, helpless people, who are caught in the middle of a war between the Taliban and Islamabad."
Many people have also criticized the local media for not giving adequate coverage to the plight of internally displaced people.
"It is the media's responsibility to spotlight the issues of those who had to leave their homes in Waziristan. It is a pity that other political issues get more air time on television than this humanitarian crisis," Matiullah Jan, an Islamabad-based journalist, told DW.