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Page last updated at 17:22 GMT, Monday, 1 June 2009 18:22 UK

Taliban conflict hits Pakistan border trade

BY M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Shangla

A view of Bele Baba town 90 minutes before the end of curfew
Towns in Shangla spring to life in the brief snatches of time outside curfew.

Curfew breaks in Shangla, a district on the eastern border of Swat valley in north-western Pakistan, have been rare over the past month.

But when they occur, they bring back life to this small but vibrant district of narrow, steep valleys and gushing streams.

For decades, Shangla has served as a transit route for goods shipped from China to Peshawar valley, the political centre of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

From Besham, Shangla's easternmost town on the Karakoram highway, which connects China with Pakistan, truckers heading for Peshawar divert to the town of Alpurai. From there it's 2,100m over the Shangla pass to Khwazakhela region in Swat.

But trade convoys have become infrequent during the past couple of years because of the conflict in Swat and have completely disappeared since April, says Sher Mohammad, a carpenter in Matta Aghwan town, some 23km (15 miles) west of Besham.

For over a month the Pakistani army has kept Shangla under curfew.

Taliban spillover

A junior army officer posted in Besham says that Swat militants have sanctuaries in Shangla and may use the area as their next stronghold.

Many in Shangla do not agree with this view.

Sher Mohammad. The road sign beside him says Matta Aghwan, the name of the town
Offices and schools have remained closed all over Shangla for almost a month, and so have all the businesses
Sher Mohammad

"Taliban came over the Shangla pass last year, but they were pushed back by the army that came in from Besham. Since then, no militant has set foot here," says Mukammil Khan, a shopkeeper in Bele Baba town.

A senior government official who until recently was posted in Alpurai, the administrative centre of Shangla, agrees.

"It is one thing to overlook Taliban activity in the river plains of Matta in Swat, it is another to allow them to find a foothold in the narrow gorges of Shangla," he says.

"In Swat, they can be wrapped up any time the government displays sufficient will to deal with them, but in Shangla a counter-insurgency operation can become a military nightmare."

The official, who was privy to various security meetings in Shangla last year, says the army acted swiftly and with determination.

"The Taliban leadership was given a clear message that Shangla was out of bounds for them and they understood the message."

But with large-scale army operations on in Swat to the west and Buner to the south, officials fear there might be a spillover in Shangla.

This fear was reinforced on 23 May when suspected Taliban kidnapped the chief of security of a Chinese engineering firm from the south of Shangla.

The victim, a former Pakistan army officer, was responsible for the security of Chinese engineers working on three hydro-power projects in the Shangla, Kohistan and Battagram districts of NWFP.

Officials say this is a one-off incident, and does not indicate any permanent Taliban bases in the south.

Kohistani shepherds whose flocks of goats and sheep are returning from their winter pastures in the warm plains of Swabi and Buner corroborate this view.

View of the hydropower dam
Security is tight where the Chinese are building a hydropower dam.

Half a dozen returning shepherds interviewed by the BBC along the Karakoram highway last week said they did not encounter Taliban in Shangla, though they did see them in large numbers in northern parts of Buner and in areas to the east, along the Indus river.

Many believe the army has put Shangla under curfew because it is using this route to resupply troops in the Khwazakhela area of Swat.

These troops were launched via Shangla in late April as part of a three-pronged attack on the Swat militants that started in early May.

The army has also imposed a communications blackout in the district, jamming all cellular phone transmissions and shutting down landlines, apparently to protect its supply lines in the area.

Local shutdown

This has reduced life in Shangla to a dull routine, except when there is a break in curfew and people are allowed to walk down to the road from their villages in the hills.

I used such a break to slip into Shangla and drive some 30km from Besham to Alpurai.

Sanaullah (sitting behind), his brother (front) and a neighbour boy (standing)
School children like Sanaullah (sitting behind) find ways to fill up curfew time.

Most shops in roadside markets along the way were closed, but some had opened, and there were people on the streets.

The army had set up camps at several points along the route, and there was heavy police security around the area where the Chinese are building a small dam on the Shangla river.

Army and police also dominated the scene in Alpurai, where all government offices were closed.

"Offices and schools have remained closed all over Shangla for almost a month, and so have all the businesses," says Sher Mohammad, the carpenter in Matta Aghwan.

He says whiling away the time has become a challenge. But not for school children, who have extra holidays this year.

Some, like Sanaullah, a seventh grade student (12- to 13-year-old) from a village near Bele Baba, spend their days sitting on a high ridge where the curfew does not apply, watching traffic below.

"When curfew is lifted, convoys of civilian trucks pass on the road, taking provisions to Alpurai and Khwazakhela," he says.

"When there is a curfew, the army trucks pass, carrying men, tanks and artillery guns to Swat. Sometimes the men wave at us, and we wave back at them."

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