Islamabad: Human rights group Amnesty International said on Thursday that nearly four million people are effectively living under Taliban rule in northwest Pakistan and have been abandoned by the government.
The 130-page report entitled `As if Hell Fell on Me: The Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan` is likely to ruffle Pakistani officials who believe they made great strides last year in regaining ground from the Taliban.
The London-based organisation said there were credible reports that at least 1,300 civilians were killed during fighting in the northwest in 2009. There has been little official word on civilians hurt in anti-Taliban campaigns.
"Nearly four million people are effectively living under the Taliban in northwest Pakistan without rule of law and effectively abandoned by the Pakistani government," said Amnesty`s acting head, Claudio Cordone.
The group called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) a "human rights free zone" and said more than one million displaced people were "in desperate need of aid".
It urged Pakistan and the Taliban to prevent loss of civilian life and allow unfettered aid workers` access to provide food, shelter and medical supplies to the injured and displaced.
"We have an historic opportunity regarding FATA right now," Amnesty`s Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi said.
The international community has put up donor funds and Pakistani troops are operating in an "unprecedented" six of the seven tribal agencies, he said.
"The old tribal order has been hugely disrupted by the Taliban and we have a civilian government in Pakistan that has talked about short and medium-term reform. There is an opportunity to do something about the people of FATA."
The British colonial-era law governing FATA denies residents basic rights and protections, including their rights to political representation, judicial appeal and freedom from collective punishment.
"The Pakistani government has to follow through on its promises to bring the region out of this human rights black hole and place the people of FATA under the protection of the law and constitution of Pakistan," said Cordone.
Amnesty, which based its report on nearly 300 interviews with residents in the northwest, accused Pakistan of launching "heavy handed" operations, including "indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks".
It said the Taliban were guilty of systematic abuses, killing those who challenge their authority and imposing their rule through torture and other ill-treatment, targeting women, teachers, aid workers and political activists.
Insurgents increased the likelihood of civilian casualties by dispersing themselves in communities and blocking roads to prevent villagers from escaping "heavy bombardment by government forces".
But a Pakistani security official challenged Amnesty to visit Swat, where commanders say a decisive battle last year returned much of the northwest valley to relative normality after a two-year uprising.
Significant territory that fell to the Taliban had been regained and urgent efforts were being made to stabilise the areas allowing the displaced to return as soon as it was safe, the official said.