PIRBABA, Pakistan — Taliban Islamists, whose announced goal is to topple the nuclear-armed Pakistani government, continue to maintain a menacing presence in Buner, a district northwest of Islamabad, the capital, that the army says it's cleared of militants, according to recently returned residents.
The pattern of insecurity in Buner, where the return of evacuees is most advanced, is repeated across the conflict zone.
The Pakistani army launched an operation 11 weeks ago against Taliban guerrillas who'd taken over the Swat, Buner and Dir districts. The 2 million people displaced by that operation started going home last week under a plan that the army administered. However, aid agencies and residents are convinced that the Taliban continue to occupy parts of areas declared safe, leaving the returnees vulnerable and frightened.
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, spoke bluntly about the problems for those returning to the conflict zone.
"The highest priority right now has to be to secure the areas in Swat and Buner as the refugees return," he said Thursday in Islamabad. "Northern Swat is still insecure, and the leadership, like (Swat Taliban leader Maulana) Fazlullah, has not been captured. So there's a long way to go here."
In Pirbaba, a small town in the north of Buner, residents told McClatchy that the Taliban are hiding in nearby villages and that they briefly set up a checkpoint just outside town at the end of last week. Separately, assailants attacked the houses of two prominent local journalists10 days ago, blowing up one home and burning the second.
In Malikpur, a village near Pirbaba, suspected Taliban shot and killed three people last week who were associated with the Awami National Party, which runs the provincial government. Pirbaba and nearby Sultanwas were major centers of Taliban resistance in Buner, where the majority of the population is said to have returned.
"Pirbaba is clear, but a five-minute drive from here is a different story," said Mohammad Saleem, a 22-year-old shopkeeper in Pirbaba, where normal life is beginning to return, with people walking the streets. "At nights, there is fear and nothing else. We hear firing and shelling."
According to Saleem and half a dozen other Pirbaba residents, a group of Taliban set up a checkpoint last week at Balo Khan, just over a mile away. They checked the identities of people who passed, apparently looking for government employees, and burned the United Nations ration cards and documents that they found, telling people that "you are eating food from America." Estimates of the number of militants involved ranged from six to 13.
In Swat in recent days, Taliban in the Matta area beheaded a police employee, while a recording of Fazlullah was played on the radio, terrorizing locals, residents said.
The towns of Kabal and Kanju, just across from the valley's main city of Mingora, remain hotbeds of Taliban activity, residents said. The army continues to report clashes, and it said that its forces had killed more than 50 Taliban in Dir this week. The army announced Thursday that it had killed two "terrorists" and arrested three in the Dadrah area of Swat. It reported Wednesday that 22 insurgents were killed and 17 detained in Swat and Dir.
There are several army checkpoints around Pirbaba and a small base on the outskirts of the town. Electricity was restored Tuesday. Some of the shops were open for business, but most remained shuttered.
"Of course we're afraid of them (Taliban) coming back," said Mohammad Nadeem, a laborer in Pirbaba. "They (Taliban) are not here now, but if the army goes, they'll return."
Locals said that Taliban remained in nearby villages at the foot of the hills that separated Buner from Swat, including Balo Khan, Bishoney, Malikpur and Pulaan to the west of Pirbaba. The hills bordering Swat also have Taliban, locals claimed, citing travelers who've passed through there. Taliban also are in Gokand valley, north of Pirbaba, and Chagharzai, to the southwest of Pirbaba, residents said.
"There's no way that outsiders will come here now. That's who we depended on," said Habib Khan, who runs a store that sells drinks and snacks in Pirbaba, whose economy was based on visitors to the town's shrine. "All the places in the mountains haven't been captured (from the Taliban), but the supply lines have been cut. I don't think the Taliban are strong anymore."
Government authorities have ordered local farmers not to grow wheat and corn, as tall crops can provide cover for insurgents, and this has dented the area's economy still more. However, in Pirbaba and Sultanwas — a village that probably suffered more damage than any other place in the military operation — villagers voiced strong support for the army's action.
"I'm glad there was an operation, because the Taliban wanted to set up their own government, their own courts. They came in the name of Shariah (Islamic law), but I don't know what their real designs were," farmer Abid Ullah said in Sultanwas, where almost every building was damaged or destroyed in the army offensive.
The military disputed that a Taliban checkpoint had been set up near Pirbaba. "There's no question" of it, said Maj. Fazal Rahman, a spokesman for the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that's in charge of security for Buner. He said that some "search and cordon" missions continued in the area but no significant combat operations were needed.
"In the far-flung areas of Buner, you can say that there are pockets of resistance, but in the main areas, there's no Taliban," Rahman said.
Humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations, are privately concerned that some of the returnees may be forced to leave because fighting will erupt again, as has been the case in Bajaur, an area on the border with Afghanistan where an earlier anti-Taliban operation took place.
"If the leadership is intact (in Swat), that means the danger is there," said Said Alam Mahsud, of Amn Tehreek, an independent advocacy group based in the provincial capital of Peshawar. "There may be a new wave of militancy, with new tactics, maybe hit and run."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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