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Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Taleban's stranglehold brings fear to Swat

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Mingora

Masked Taleban militants publicly flog an alleged drug smuggler in Dheri, near Mingora, Sunday January 11, 2009
The Pakistani Taleban dispense their form of justice in much of the Swat region

Swat Continental hotel in the town of Mingora in north-west Pakistan opened in the mid-1990s when tourism in the region was at its peak.

A decade later, it is the only hotel in town which still receives guests, mainly television crews that come to cover the conflict.

For two years, the region once known for its river valleys and wooded mountains has been in the grip of a bloody insurgency by Islamic militants.

Pakistan has deployed a large number of army and paramilitary troops to try to contain them. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting.

The past few weeks have been the worst.

Climate of fear

Amid reports that the government plans to renew talks with the militants, there has been a sudden escalation in the conflict.

map

First, it was the appearance of beheaded bodies in various public places in Mingora, terrorising the local population.

According to reports, more than 30 bodies were found in the town during a two-week period in December and January.

Then came the Taleban's edict banning education for girls.

Although the edict came at a time when government schools had closed for the winter holidays, some privately-owned schools still holding classes closed down after that.

At the same time, suspected militants blew up several schools in Mingora, including some boys' ones, saying the buildings were being used as camps by the army.

Various circles in Mingora believe the army has responded to this by killing militants it has been holding in its custody.

The army denies this.

Troops have also moved into several school buildings in Mingora - as well as the city's oldest college, the Post-Graduate Jehanzeb College for men - apparently to prevent the militants from blowing them up.

For the people of Mingora, all this has the makings of a timebomb that is ticking away and may blow up on or around 1 March when schools are scheduled to reopen.

This has had a visible effect on the morale of the city.

'Cleansing'

Since the insurgency began the civilian population has increasingly become a target of both sides.

The very rich and the very poor have already left Swat
Swat resident

The militants are "cleansing" individuals suspected of holding "liberal" views.

Swat has been a stronghold of two secular parties - the Pakistan People's Party and the Awami National Party. The militants are now bent upon weeding out their supporters.

As a result, many families have suffered attacks and beheadings by the militants.

The army, given its lack of local knowledge, has been rounding up people at random to blunt the effectiveness of the militants, often with adverse results.

Besides, it has mostly occupied public buildings in civilian areas, which have subsequently become targets for suicide bombers, with devastating repercussions for locals.

A year ago, an attack on a public library in the heart of Mingora, which the army had occupied, not only led to dozens of civilian casualties but also destroyed Swat Museum, which was located opposite the library.

The Japanese government had spent 46m yen ($500,000) in the late 1990s to renovate the museum, which contained relics from Swat's Buddhist past.

Today, it is closed to the public and most of the relics are said to have been irreparably damaged.

Few guests

In November 2007, when I last visited Mingora, the place still bustled with activity and the streets in the centre were choked with traffic. Not any more.

"The very rich and the very poor have already left Swat. The rich can afford to live in other cities of the country, and the poor would rather do the labour where it is safer," says one resident.

The middle-income segment, with business stakes or government jobs, are stuck here because their means do not allow them to have the same lifestyle elsewhere, he says.

Traffic, therefore, has thinned out and businesses face hard times.

An estate agent told me that a shop in central Mingora - which would have fetched 10m rupees (about $127,000) until six months ago - is now available at 3.5m, but there are no buyers.

And there are few officials in the government offices due to fear of attacks.

Back in 2007, Swat Continental had more than half its rooms occupied, and a staff of more than 70 people.

They are now down to six. And I am their second guest in a week - the others are a four-member television crew.

What's more, there are no TVs in the rooms.

"We cleared the TVs from the rooms because there are hardly any guests, but we'll give you one," says the only room service member staff on duty.

But when the TV comes on, I discover that there are only two channels available - both local news channels.

When I ask the reason, the man gives me a sheepish smile. "This is all we have."

I know that they have a satellite dish on the roof top and can receive more channels. But at the same time I realise that the writ of the Taleban, who have banned satellite TV, runs deep inside Mingora.

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