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Murky war in Pakistan spurs exodus of refugees

JALOZAI, Pakistan -- Banmaroo stands in the dust, tears rolling down her cheeks as she recalls how her husband was killed in Pakistan's latest battle zone on the Afghan border.

“He was just a laborer. Firing started. I don't know who killed him, but I was handed his body in the afternoon. It was in such a rough condition, just pieces,” she said, wiping her face with her green veil.

Too frightened to cope alone and worried that her children would also become caught up in fighting between the army and local warlord Mangal Bagh, she fled.

“We felt danger everywhere. If the situation becomes good and our area gets freedom, we'll go back. We need peace,” she said.

Traveling from her home in Khyber, Banmaroo and her six children arrived at Jalozai, Pakistan's largest refugee camp, three weeks ago.

She is among more than 250,000 people, mostly women and children, Save the Children says have fled the violence since January.

Khyber lies just outside Peshawar in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt, on the Afghan border, still considered the world's premier al-Qaida hub despite the killing of Osama bin Laden and the impact of U.S. drone strikes.

But the war in Bara, where Banmaroo and her children remember a once-idyllic life, is far murkier than a simple fight between the state and Islamist militants who want to impose sharia law and purge communities of infidels.

Troops have struggled since 2009 to defeat Bagh, a former bus conductor who founded Lashkar-e-Islam, a militia better known for kidnapping and extortion than religion.

Now soldiers are stepping up the fight, keen to quell Bara to protect nearby Peshawar, the sprawling city where an increase in bomb and rocket attacks has been linked to the fighting in Khyber.

As a result, thousands of refugees stream into Jalozai everyday. Young men queue up to register in droves, standing or squatting under the burning sun. Security guards armed with sticks swipe queue-jumpers.

“Five thousand people are expected to register today. Three days back it was 2,900,” UNHCR field officer Changaiz Mataul Hussain told AFP.

It's a scene that Jalozai knows only too well. For 26 years, it was home to Afghans fleeing Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule.

Then in 2007, six years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban and when life in Afghanistan appeared to be improving, Pakistan closed the camp. Afghans were either voluntarily repatriated or told to find new homes.

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