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Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Tuesday, 28 April 2009 11:27 UK

Civilians flee Pakistan fighting

Civilians in Lower Dir, Pakistan
There are fears of many civilian casualties in the violence

Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in north-west Pakistan to escape a continuing military operation against militants.

Some 70 militants have been killed in Lower Dir in North West Frontier Province, the interior ministry says.

The operation comes amid growing Western concerns over Taleban activity in the region.

The Taleban had agreed a peace deal but negotiators say talks are suspended while the military operation continues.

The government of North West Frontier Province this year agreed to introduce Sharia law in the six districts of its Malakand division in return for an end to the Taleban insurgency.

However, the Taleban have not laid down their arms and the recent expansion of their operations has caused deep concern in the US and other Western nations, as well as in Pakistan.

Trapped

Some 30,000 people, mainly women and children, are said to have been able to escape to safety in Lower Dir.

NWFP officials have confirmed at least eight paramilitaries have been killed. The eight Chitral Scouts soldiers were buried on Tuesday in Chitral.

Amnesty International says at least five non-combatants, including two women and a child, have also died. It is feared many more civilians may have lost their lives.

Eyewitnesses told an Amnesty researcher that at least 10 houses had been completely destroyed with 40-50 more damaged.

The main military focus on Tuesday was on the Maidan region of Lower Dir.

Soldier in Lower Dir
The army operation has led to a communications blackout

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says there is a communications blackout in the area.

Neither mobile phones nor landlines are working, and there is a power cut, which means people trapped in the area have no access to television news.

Reports quoting military officials said security forces had secured all the major target areas and that militant hideouts on the hills separating Dir from Swat were now being targeted.

However, our correspondent says witnesses suggest the Taleban are fanning out across the area, possibly to more inaccessible valleys in Upper Dir where they already have hideouts and, according to local observers, more public sympathy than in Lower Dir.

The army's inaction in Swat had led militants otherwise confined to a small region in the Matta sub-district to spread across the whole of the district.

Officials in Dir fear a repeat if the government fails to show an effective use of force.

The Taleban have already spread into Buner district. On Friday they announced they would withdraw and now say there are few Taleban left.

However, our correspondent says the Taleban have already removed all opposition in Buner and set up a local corps, so that even if the Swat Taleban leave, it will by no means lead to a de-Talebanisation of the district.

On Tuesday Interior Minister Rehman Malik warned the military operation could extend to Buner if the Taleban did not leave.

Suspended

In Swat itself, the Taleban have now spread northwards to upper valleys that had hitherto been left alone.

On Monday they took the town of Bahrain and occupied government buildings and residences of local leaders opposed to the Taleban.

A spokesman for Sufi Muhammad, the cleric who negotiated the deal between the government and the Taleban, said talks with NWFP had been suspended because of the military action in Lower Dir.

However, both he and the NWFP government say they want the peace deal to work.

Sufi Muhammad is one of those cut off in a village in Lower Dir.

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