At least 33,000 civilians have abandoned their homes to avoid clashes between Pakistani security forces and the Taleban in northwest Pakistan, according to information gathered by Amnesty International in Pakistan.
The civilians fleeing from Lower Dir in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which includes the Swat valley, join more than half a million people already displaced by the fighting, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
"Pakistan is now facing a serious displacement crisis, as hundreds of thousands have been forced out of their homes, including tens of thousands now living in camps formerly used to house Afghan refugees," said Sam Zarifi Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director.
"While the politicians in Islamabad and Washington talk about geopolitics, people in these quiet villages have their lives shattered. It's about time for the world to turn its attention to the people of NWFP, who are facing severe problems right now."
Amnesty International researchers on the ground have collected eyewitness reports of displacement and killings in Lower Dir, which is part of the Malakand District of the NWFP, an area where journalists have no access. They have also managed to take some exclusive photographs.
Eyewitnesses from Maidan Tehseel (sub-district) in Lower Dir told Amnesty International that bodies were left lying on the streets and in the fields because people were too afraid to move them. At least five civilians have been confirmed dead at the district hospital in Timergara, including two women and one girl.
Several villages in Maidan, including Islam Dara, Kankot, Maidan Khas and Lal Qila, seem to have been targeted by government artillery and helicopter gunships after Taleban forces fired on security forces from residential areas. Eyewitnesses could see at least ten houses completely destroyed while another 40 to 50 suffered partial damage.
"Neither the Taleban nor the government forces seem to care about the well-being of the residents of Lower Dir," said Sam Zarifi. "The Taleban show no compunction about using civilian areas as combat zones, even knowing that the military will respond with indiscriminate long-distance shelling and aerial bombardment."
Observers in the district's main town, Timergara, told Amnesty International that thousands of civilians have abandoned their homes in Maidan and moved toward neighbouring areas in Chakdara, Mardan and Charsadda. An eyewitness in Maidan said civilians were moving through the fields in order to avoid the firing on the main roads.
A local non-governmental organization working in Lower Dir, Al Khidmat (affiliated with the religiously based political party Jammaat-ul Islami) told Amnesty International on Monday that it had recorded at least 33,000 displaced people in the last two days.
A peace accord signed on 14 April, between the Pakistani Taleban and the Pakistani government, granted the Taleban control over Malakand in exchange for laying down their arms. However, since then the Taleban have been encroaching on neighbouring areas.
The fighting in Lower Dir began when the Taleban fired on a government convoy moving to the town of Lal Qala.
Local government sources told Amnesty International that eight government troops and 47 Taleban fighters had been killed, including Qari Shahid, the Taleban's commander in the region. Amnesty International could not independently confirm the numbers due to the intensity of the fighting.
The Taleban have said that military operations in Lower Dir violate the terms of the Swat peace agreement. Local Taleban groups have announced they will hold a mass demonstration in Lower Dir on Tuesday to protest the military operations.
A political council, or jirga, held in Timergara on Monday, failed to end the fighting. The council was conducted by Hajji Muhammad Rasul, a Jammaat-ul Islami leader in Dir, and included two local Taleban groups, the Al Badr and Hizb-I Mujahid.
The Taleban demanded an end to military operations, while representatives of the provincial government, the Pashtun secularist Awami National Party, said the operations had been targeting forces involved in a spate of recent kidnappings.