Fear amid reports of landmine-laying in Mingora

People in Mingora, the principal city of Swat in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), are living in a heightened state of fear after reports of Taliban militants laying landmines in a busy square in the city centre, and in Sharifabad, a village 3km from Mingora.

“We have heard that Sohrab Khan Chowk [square] is mined. The purpose is to prevent people from fleeing,” Zarar Hussein (not his real name) told IRIN from Mingora. “There is no way of knowing where else the mines have been placed,” he said.

The latest reports on landmine use by Taliban militants fighting government forces in Swat and other areas of the NWFP came from Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based rights watchdog.

In a statement, Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW, said: “The Taliban's use of landmines and human shields is a sorry addition to their long list of abuses in the Swat valley." The statement quoted residents of Mingora as saying the Taliban had laid mines in the town

Meanwhile the cabinet has also been told of the landmine-laying in Mingora by a minister.

“There have been consistent accounts of this. We believe it is true,” said Ghazanfar Muhammad, 40, who brought his family from Mingora to Peshawar about 10 days ago.

The Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has denounced the use of mines in Swat, saying: “Landmines could rapidly claim casualties among the civilians fleeing the conflict zone.”

ICBL quoted the Pakistan army cell in Mingora as informing it that “victim-activated improvised explosive devices” and factory-made anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines had been encountered in the Swat Valley.

The army attributed these to the Taliban and “foreign elements”.

Mine risk education campaign

Pakistan has not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty which prohibits the use and production of landmines.

Raza Shah Khan, director of the Peshawar-based Sustainable Peace and Development Organisation, which campaigns against landmines and is an ICBL member, said the organisation would soon start a “mine risk education campaign in the camps for internally displaced people” so that civilians are “aware of the threat when they go back to their homes”.

Khan also said the mines presented an “immediate and direct menace to civilians”.

However, there is no way yet of independently verifying how many mines may have been laid in Swat. The fact is, however, that their presence adds to the risks posed to the civilian population. “More must be done to prevent the suffering of people caught up in this conflict,” Asma Jahangir, chair of the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said.

The accounts of mines being laid in populated residential areas also add to the sense of fear: “As if bombing, shelling, food shortages and an absence of medicines was not enough to worry about, now we must also live in terror of a limb being blown away or a child being killed by a mine,” said Zarar Hussein.