Pakistani women walk past tents at a refugee camp in Mardan, in northwest Pakistan, Thursday, May 7, 2009. Thousands of residents are fleeing fighting between the army and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley, in Pakistan`s northwest.
CBS News' Farhan Bokhari reports from Islamabad, Pakistan on increased fighting by the government against Taliban militant forces.
Taliban militants in Pakistan's embattled Swat region on Friday were accused of using civilians as human shields as the military stepped up its attacks targeting suspected Taliban targets while civilians struggled to leave the region.
"They (Taliban) are on the run and trying to block the exodus of civilians" said Major General Athar Abbas, the Pakistan army's chief spokesman, in his first press briefing on Friday since armed forces jets early in the morning began pounding Taliban positions. General Abbas said the military campaign could "take time as militants are using civilians as human shields" -- without specifying the time frame.
In a related development, there were growing signs of the human catastrophe emerging from Swat, as thousands of people fled to the relative safety of other areas. U.N. officials warned that the fighting was likely to displace a large number of people whose living conditions could aggravate rapidly as there weren't enough preparations to cater for their needs.
"There is just not enough preparation in other cities outside Swat to care for these people" said one U.N. official in Islamabad who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity. "If there is a long drawn conflict, there could be a major humanitarian crisis built around people from Swat," the official said.
Raheem Khan, a refugee who fled from Swat and arrived in Islamabad, told a harrowing account of conditions in the region. "There are food shortages which are becoming more and more acute every day" he told CBS News in an interview. "In areas where there is active exchange of fire between the Taliban and the army, it is not possible for many people to come out of their homes," he said.
The fighting in Swat was stepped up on Thursday night when Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani announced on Pakistan's national television that "In order to restore honor and dignity of our homeland and to protect the people, the armed forces have been called in to eliminate the militants and terrorists".
But western diplomats said the decision to step up the fight was taken after U.S. leaders, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton urged Pakistan's leaders to abandon efforts for negotiating with the Taliban.
This followed a controversial attempt by the Pakistani government earlier this year to agree to enforce Islamic laws in Swat and its surrounding region in return for promises by leaders of the Taliban to disarm. However, they later reneged on their promises in spite of the government announcing a new system of Islamic justice.
A young boy cries as he waits for his father, in a truck at a refugee camp in Mardan, in northwest Pakistan, Thursday, May 7, 2009. Thousands of residents are fleeing fighting between the army and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley, in Pakistan`s northwest.