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Swat return 'must be voluntary'

By David Loyn
BBC News, Islamabad

SWABI, PAKISTAN - JULY 09: A young Pakistani girl internally displaced from the Swat Valley, cries as she receive treatment for dehydration in the Bahria Town
People left their homes to escape fighting between the army and Taliban

The return of people displaced by the fighting in north-west Pakistan over the last two months must be voluntary, the UN's humanitarian chief says.

John Holmes told the BBC that the UN was "a bit uncomfortable" about the key role played by the army in arranging relief but praised their co-operation.

Pakistani PM Yusuf Raza Gilani announced on Thursday that displaced people can return home next week.

He said the Taliban had been dislodged from the positions they held.

"It will be a phased return and will be carried out by the government's Special Support Group," he said.

Mr Gilani also said that the "target" of the war had been achieved and that a monument to commemorate Pakistan's dead in the fighting would be put up.

Gradual return

Mr Holmes visited camps where about 10 percent of the two million or so displaced are living. Most are staying with other families or squatting in community buildings and schools.

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN - JULY 06: A Pakistani man, internally displaced from Swat, gathers bricks left over from the construction of a new kitchen at the Yar Hussain UNHCR camp in Chota Lahore on July 6, 2009 in Swabi district

He said that everybody he spoke to wanted to go home, but it was important that nobody should feel under pressure to leave before they feel secure.

"We have been clear to the government, and the humanitarian community has in general, that this has got to be voluntary and the government say they accept that.

"Obviously they want to encourage people to go back, but we need to be very careful that it is a proper process, that it is voluntary, that the conditions are right when they get there, the basic services as well as security," he said.

Mr Holmes visited Buner, where the Taliban did not have deep roots, and where many individual farmers had returned to secure their fields or animals, leaving their families to join them later.

He said that some markets were beginning to function: "I think in Buner they are beginning to feel safe, but the same may not be true of some of the other areas."

There is a strong military presence in the whole region, in particular in Mingora, the main town in the Swat valley, where security forces have continued to question people who remain as they try to track down remnants of the Taliban who fled from the area.

One of the villages visited by Mr Holmes, Sultanwas, was flattened in heavy fighting after the Taliban made a stand there, and reconstruction will be a long job.

Mr Holmes said that the international aid effort will have to continue for many months after people return home.

He said that aid workers were monitoring the situation in South Waziristan, where government forces are poised to launch an offensive, and he cautioned about people being too optimistic about security in Swat.

"This is early days; the Taliban are not going to disappear completely," he said.



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