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Page last updated at 08:48 GMT, Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Swat civilians caught in the crossfire

In his third and final feature from the troubled north-western Pakistani region of Swat, the BBC's M Ilyas Khan discovers that it is ordinary people who are suffering most in the struggle between the Pakistan army and Taleban militants.

Grain Market Square in downtown Mingora
Beheaded bodies have started to appear regularly in Mingora's Grain Market Square - both the Taleban and army have been blamed

What the international community has been urging in recent years is finally on the lips of the Pakistanis as well - the military is not doing enough to curb militancy in the country.

And nowhere is this feeling stronger than in Swat, where an operation by security forces has only served to help militants expand their control from the small and remote sub-division of Matta to nearly the entire district.

The only place in which the Taleban do not roam free is a stretch of road in Mingora, the capital town of Swat, where the main command and control centre of the army is located.

Tentative control

Areas to the north, west and east of the town, including its outskirts, have been taken over by the Taleban, putting an end to the civil and police administration there.

Army sign in Swat urging local people to 'be patient'
Army signs urge people to be patient because things will soon improve

The road to the south, which connects Swat with the rest of the country, is still open but the government's control there is also tentative.

Last week, I stood among hundreds of residents of Mingora's southern Qambar neighbourhood, watching Taleban fighters close the road to prevent fresh army contingents from moving into the district.

Fighters wearing masks kept moving in and out of the alleyways on both sides of the road, occasionally firing their assault rifles southwards.

Far in the south, behind the hills, we could hear more frequent light-weapons fire from the militants, punctuated with machinegun fire, presumably from the army.

Amid this mayhem, I saw families, mostly women and children, leaving the area in vehicles or on foot.

For nearly 18 hours, Mingora remained under virtual siege as exit routes on all four sides remained closed.

'Early exit'

For an outsider like me, this was scary enough, but the people of Swat have seen worse since November 2007, when the army first moved into the district.

Taleban post about 20km south of Mingora
The Taleban control all of the countryside

More than 1,000 civilians have died in shelling by the army or from beheadings sanctioned by the Taleban. Thousands more have been displaced.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of school children face an uncertain future due to a Taleban ban on education.

"People were happy at first that the army would deliver them from anarchy by restoring order in the region," says Fazl-e-Mabood, a professor at Mingora's Jehanzeb Postgraduate College.

"They now think their salvation lies in an early exit by the army."

People say this is because the army has failed either to roll back the Taleban or protect the Taleban's opponents.

Military officials in Mingora admit this. They say their drawback is a lack of local knowledge and their inability to separate enemy combatants from civilians.

The troops are also low on morale due to constant fear of suicide attacks, or possible capture by the Taleban, which often translates into beheadings.

Islamic justice

Their best weapons appears to be helicopter gunships and long-range artillery, which many consider to be the major cause of high civilian casualties.

map

By comparison, the Taleban control the entire countryside, where they run their own administration and a system of Islamic justice as they understand it.

"They have an organisational unit in every village, and everybody knows who the local commander is, or which phone number to call if a dispute is to be sent for adjudication," says an official of the teachers' association who wishes not to be named.

There are no court fees, and proceedings are swift, unlike the extremely expensive government courts, where civil suits can drag on for decades.

But there is a harsh downside to the Taleban, which is why most people welcomed the army when it first came to Swat.

"The Taleban crush dissent with brute force, there are foreigners among them who are known to cut throats of the people they don't like, and worst of all, they oppose education, whereas no sane person in today's Swat is willing to deprive even his female children of schooling," says the teacher.

Ordinary people are increasingly finding themselves caught between the two sides.

Local people fleeing Swat
Many people have fled Swat to be in safer parts of Pakistan

Since the army has failed to oust the Taleban from the area, the residents believe that a retreat by the army would at least put an end to civilian deaths.

A veteran politician, Afzal Khan, says he discussed the situation with the army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who visited Swat last week.

"I told him the army needed to dispel the impression that Taleban and the army were two faces of the same coin," he told me by telephone from his village in upper Swat.

Hashmim Babar, a leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), which rules North West Frontier Province - of which Swat is a part - goes a step further.

"It is a conspiracy by the unseen forces [a local euphemism for Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI] that want to turn Swat into a sanctuary for militants whom they have been using in Afghanistan and India."

A member of a council of elders that has been facilitating talks between the government and the militants says he has come to the conclusion that there is a "third side" to the conflict in Swat.

"Every time we are about to approach a peace pact, someone from the army or the militants surprises us with a beheading or a custodial killing, pushing us back to square-one."

In recent weeks, the political and military leadership have expressed renewed "will and resolve" to retake Swat valley from the militants.

Security officials say they are now planning to put more boots on the ground and consolidate their hold on areas where they have a presence.

A week down the line, however, the new strategy has led to the killing of scores of civilians and families continue to flee the area for safer regions.

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