Asia-Pacific, Headlines

POLITICS-PAKISTAN: Pro-Taliban Militants Grip Swat Valley, Defy Army

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Nov 3 2007 (IPS) - Violence has escalated this week in Swat, a high valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan, where a tenuous ceasefire was broken by brazen attacks on government targets by pro-Taliban militants.

The resumption of hostilities prompted more people to flee their homes and move to safe places.

The two-day-old ceasefire collapsed on Oct. 31 when security forces used helicopter gunships against militant hideouts after a spate of violent incidents including rocket attacks on a police post in Kabbal and the camp of the Frontier Reserve police in Saidu Sharif, the district capital.

A day later, 48 security personnel were taken hostage in Swat, where armed clashes have left more than 150 people dead since last week. On Friday the soldiers were paraded before the media before being released.

The security personnel had surrendered after militants in the Khwazakhela area in Swat ambushed them on Nov. 1. They were held in Charbagh, a stronghold of the radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah.

The government had deployed thousands of additional troops on Oct. 24 to regain control of 59 villages from the pro-Taliban Maulana Fazlullah, son-in-law of the jailed leader of the Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat who has declared jihad on the authorities.

Maulana Fazlullah, who preaches over his own FM radio station, has mobilised some 4,000 volunteers in an armed wing called Shaheen Force, and established courts. Three persons were lashed in public on Oct. 12 for their role in the abduction of a woman.

"A huge crowd witnessed the lashing and were full of praise for the cleric’s quick dispensation of justice. People are extremely fed up with the state-run judicial system," said a local journalist, Hameedullah Khan.

There is a complete ban on music, Internet cafes and CD shops in Swat. Maulana Fazlullah set 15 CD shops on fire before Ramazan after paying the owners, 2,000 dollars each. The radical cleric has even changed names of places that he has deemed un-Islamic. Schools in Swat, especially for girls, have been closed. In August, the principal of a paramedical institute was killed in a bomb attack on his vehicle for failing to stop teaching female students.

With a population of roughly one million, picturesque Swat was a major tourist destination for westerners before the breakdown of law and order. There were more than 300 bomb blasts in the NWFP, a third of these in Swat, during the Muslim holy month of Ramazan or Ramadan.

In a chilling reminder of the shameful dynamiting of the centuries-old Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban in March 2001, militants twice attempted to demolish a Buddha statue carved into the mountainside in Swat, in September.

According to eyewitnesses, local armed militant supporters of Maulana Fazlullah attacked the 7th century statue in the small village of Jihanabad. The seven metre high statue of the Buddha, in a meditative pose, is widely recognised as the most complete and inspiring symbol of Gandhara art.

The statue was built around the 2nd century, during the Gandhara civilisation, which flourished in that part of Pakistan from the 6th century B.C. to the 11th century A.D., according to Prof. Fidaullah Sehrai, an expert on Buddhist archaeology and former director of the Peshawar Museum.

"We fear that while the statue has survived (the second attack in 20 days), the next time more powerful explosives could be used to complete the destruction of what the militants say are ‘symbols of evil’ if the government does not take steps to protect these national monuments," commented archaeologist Zainul Wahab.

A police official at the closest police station said: "Due to the precarious law and order situation in the area we are confined to the police station and could not go to the place."

Historians and citizens groups have urged the government to protect Pakistan’s ancient past from 21st century vandals.

Sehrai told IPS: "The Butkarra ruins, Chakdara museum and Takht-i-Bahi ruins are particularly vulnerable and must be protected from any possible targeting by religious zealots."

Swat was a centre of Buddhism in ancient times. According to historians, its ancient name was Udhyana, which can be loosely translated as a land of gardens. Once the most holy land for Buddhists after Bodh Gaya, there are several rock carvings from the 5th and 6th centuries on the road from Charsadda to Chilas districts in Pakistan&#39s Northern Areas.

The influence of pro-Taliban groups has spilt over into NWFP from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which became a safe haven for the Taliban after the dismissal of their government in Kabul by United States-led forces in end-2001.

Pakistan has massed troops along the 2,400-km porous border with Afghanistan to check cross border movement of the Taliban and al Qaeda operatives, but militancy has engulfed many areas.

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