Pakistani Taliban turn honeymoon spot into slaughterhouse

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 26, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani Taliban dumped the 27 bodies at a crossroads in the district capital of Swat, all of people whom the militant Islamists accused of having led "un-Islamic" lives. Around the body of a dancer, the killers threw banknotes and DVD recordings of her performances.

Swat, a 3,500-square-mile valley, was Pakistan's favorite honeymoon spot, a mountainous area filled with fruit orchards and rushing streams. Now it's under a reign of terror that a yearlong army operation has proved unable to lift. Most of Swat is now under the extremists' control, locals say.

The former tourist destination with a population of 1.7 million lies in the North West Frontier Province 100 miles from Islamabad. Swat is a "settled" area of Pakistan, not the lawless tribal area along the Afghan border, which has provided sanctuary for al Qaida. Its near-complete takeover by militants is another sign of the serious deterioration of civil authority in Pakistan, an enormous challenge for the elected government of this nuclear-armed country and for President Barack Obama's new administration.

Earlier this month, the Islamic extremists banned schooling for girls and blew up eight more schools, six in Mingora, which had been thought to be the safest place in Swat. The insurgents have destroyed at least 186 government schools, mainly for girls but also a number for boys, according to Pakistani officials. That's deprived 80,000 children of education and raised questions as to whether any parents in Swat will send their children to class now.

This week, the Swat Taliban issued a list of 47 people whom they ordered to appear before their "court" or face unstated consequences.

"If Swat is surrendered, it will become a safe haven for militants, who will threaten the rest of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India," said Hasham Baber, a senior member of the Awami National Party, which runs the provincial government. "The army is terrorizing the people of Swat; the Taliban is terrorizing them."

A charismatic preacher called Mullah Fazlullah leads the militants and broadcasts his strictures daily over his radio station. Women aren't allowed to go shopping. The Taliban run their own system of justice, with their own courts, and carry out public whippings and other punishments. They execute open critics, denying them even court hearings.

The Pakistani army launched an operation against the Taliban in November 2007, but after initial gains the Taliban pushed the army back. Some 12,000 troops are deployed in Swat. Residents accuse the army of failing to attack the militants' headquarters, not holding ground, shelling civilian areas and not even closing the radio channel. Checkpoints, manned by masked extremists, crisscross the valley unchallenged.

The government has said that school will start again March 1 after the winter vacation. Teachers fear for their lives, however, and those of their students.

"We will not open the schools unless total peace is restored, in the whole of Swat," said Ziauddin Yousafzai, the former president of the Swat schools association. "The Taliban is closing schools at gunpoint, and the government is telling us to open them at gunpoint."

Elected representatives have fled Swat, even town council members. Police officers, the target of many suicide attacks, have deserted, with the force down in strength to 295 from 1,725, said Shaukat Yousafzai, the top state official in Swat.

"Things are really deteriorating," Yousafzai said. "The police just protect some of the main offices now. They are not fit for tackling an insurgency. This is not a law and order issue."

The army has put the blame on civilians, and it complained that the provincial government stopped the military operation last April for two months while it tried to forge a doomed peace deal with the Taliban. That allowed Fazlullah's men to rearm and gain a stranglehold over the population, said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman.

"Half of the police has bolted from Swat, by name only the civil administration is there and what about the local leaders? There is a vacuum on the other (civilian) side," Abbas said.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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