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Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Saturday, 23 May 2009 17:25 UK

Pakistan army vows Swat victory

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Swat

Pakistani soldiers overlooking Swat Valley (Picture by Bhasker Solanki, 23 May 2009)
Pakistani troops say they retook this ridge from the Taliban

A large Pakistani flag flaps in the wind atop a tree-covered mountain.

Just metres away, soldiers are crouching behind sandbags to command a view of the stunning Swat valley - a river winding past green orchards and golden wheat fields, surrounded by snow-capped peaks.

The army has brought journalists to this 7,000-foot ridge known as Baini Baba Ziarat to showcase what it says is a major victory in its battle against Taliban militants who had overrun Pakistan's north-west Swat region.

In the past two years the army has twice failed to defeat the Taliban of Swat. But this time will be different, it says.

We are told these heights were a strategic location for guerrilla fighters.

"It was important to deny them the vantage point from where they had uninterrupted communications," says Brig Ajab Khan, brigade commander for a part of northern, or upper, Swat.

"The ridge also dominated the area as an observation point. In addition it was a safe haven, so it had to be taken and destroyed."

We are shown a sophisticated network of bunkers and tunnels, supplied with electricity and water. One soldier points out two flat green patches of grass as the places where the Taliban trained.

Earlier the army had presented a frightened, 15-year-old school boy. He told journalists he had been forcibly recruited as a Taliban fighter and ordered to become a suicide bomber.

He said he had escaped during the military operation.

Mingora offensive

We skirt around craters punched into the earth by heavy artillery, fired from nearby mountains as troops scaled the heights to capture the ridge in "less than a day".

The entire nation is behind this operation."
Maj Gen Sajjad Ghani

The commanding officer in charge of the Upper Swat operations, Maj Gen Sajjad Ghani, is upbeat about the army's achievements.

He says troops have secured the town of Matte, the Taliban's administrative centre, and are closing in on a key militant stronghold in the remote Peochar Valley.

Further south, we were told, soldiers had encircled the main city of Mingora, the Taliban's urban base, and are poised to start the offensive. It began less than 24 hours after our visit.

The army acknowledges there can be no purely military victory against the Taliban.

In the past, the militants exploited a weak civil administration and judiciary to ride to power on popular calls for Islamic law.

Peace deals with the government had interrupted two previous army operations, providing "the other side with time to rearm, reassert, reorganise, and return to the valley", says Maj Gen Athar Abbas, an army spokesman.

Street in Mingora - 4/05/09
Most of Mingora's residents have fled

"That created problems for the military in the subsequent phases of the operation."

He notes that lack of public support, due to "death, damage, destruction and displacement", had created a political consensus in favour of peace talks.

But now, the Taliban have been "politically disarmed and isolated", Gen Abbas says.

People "saw their real face, and realised their aims" when they continued to challenge the state, even after the introduction of Islamic law in Swat, he adds.

'Small steps'

Clearly, the army has been bolstered by political support.

"There is a national will," Maj Gen Ghani said. "The operations have been endorsed by parliament, the entire nation is behind this operation."

And this time the army will stay to provide a security umbrella so that the police and civil administration have time to recover.

But public support is fragile. In previous military actions in Pakistan's northwest it was lost by army measures that left many dead and whole villages destroyed.

This time too, fleeing residents describe seeing unburied bodies in fields and ditches.

The generals dismiss these reports. They insist they are taking great care to avoid civilian casualties. As much as 90% of Mingora's population fled ahead of the fighting, they say.

Still, surveying the Swat valley from the ridge, Brig Khan is cautious about issuing any claims of victory.

"In an insurgency environment it's always small, small steps which ultimately lead to the resolution of the problem," he says.

"I can say the Taliban have suffered a serious setback, but the threat is dynamic and it keeps evolving."

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