Islamabad, April 28 (IANS) About 30,000 people have been displaced during the military offensive against Taliban fighters in Pakistan's Lower Dir area, a minister said Tuesday.
'Up to 30,000 people have left Maidan in Lower Dir district over the past few days,' the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain told the media in Peshawar.
'We are making arrangements for them in Peshawar, Nowshera and Timargarah districts,' Dawn quoted Hussain as saying.
Residents said thousands of terrified people, mostly women and children, left the area with their belongings after Pakistan troops and helicopter gunships launched the operation over the weekend, the report said.
Lower Dir lies about 170 km northwest of Islamabad, to the west of Swat. It is part of the Malakand division in the NWFP.
Heavy artillery shelling by the paramilitary Frontier Corps troops continued in the Maidan area of Lower Dir overnight, a senior military officer said Tuesday.
Hussain said the Dir operation was a consequence of the Taliban challenging the writ of the government.
'The government will defend its writ but won't make the first move,' he said.
'The government needed to deploy security forces in Buner because the militants were challenging its writ,' he added.
The fresh offensive by the security forces has come as Western governments, including that of the US, raised serious concerns about the peace pact in the north-western Swat region and accused the nuclear-armed country of abdicating to the Taliban.
Sufi Mohammed's Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Muhammadi and the NWFP government Feb 16 inked a controversial peace deal under which Sharia laws would be imposed in the Malakand division in return for the Taliban laying down their arms.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had approved the imposition of Islamic sharia law in the Malakand division and Swat April 13, nearly two months after hardline cleric Sufi Mohammad brokered a peace deal between the regional government and the rebel.
Although the government began setting up sharia courts, the emboldened militants refused to disarm and instead expanded their control over Swat's neighbouring districts of Buner and Shangla.