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Page last updated at 21:23 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 22:23 UK

Pakistan refugees face uncertain return

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Displaced people wait to return to their homes in Shergarh near Mardan
Two million people are expected to return to Malakand

Two months after the Pakistani army launched its latest assault on militants in the north-western region of Malakand, people displaced by fighting have started returning to their homes.

More than two million of them will be leaving refugee camps and other shelters in the Peshawar valley region of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) over the next few weeks.

But is it secure enough in Malakand for them to resume normal life?

A large majority of the people remain sceptical.

Scorching heat

Correspondents who covered the first day of the repatriations in Peshawar on Monday say most people are returning because they want to secure their properties back home.

Others want to escape the scorching heat of the Peshawar valley, where summer temperatures can sometimes soar to twice that of the mountainous Malakand region.


We are offering no guarantees against guerrilla-style attacks
Senator Afrasiab Khattak

None of them rules out a resurgence of the Taliban in the area.

A major reason behind this scepticism is the situation in the affected districts of Malakand region.

In Swat, the army has secured the central town of Mingora, but the areas around it are still not safe.

Taliban activity is being reported in the Kabal, Charbagh and Matta areas, west and north-west of Mingora.

Both Kabal and Matta share a border with the districts of Upper and Lower Dir.

Most of the top Taliban leadership of Swat is reported to be hiding in this border region.

Safe exit

Many also believe this area to have served as an escape route for those Taliban who had infiltrated Swat from other areas such as Bajaur, Waziristan and Afghanistan.

They suspect that sections of the security establishment provided the "more friendly" Taliban elements with this safe exit, while blocking the exit of the "hostile" ones.

An old man stands in the ruins of his house in Sultanwas, Buner
Some discover their homes were destroyed in the fierce fighting

In Lower Dir district, the local military leadership has been urging the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from Maidan region to return to their homes.

But the IDPs say the area is largely controlled by the Taliban, who opposed people leaving their homes ahead of the operation and may not take kindly to them when they return.

On Sunday night, they kidnapped an IDP, Latif Khan, hours after he returned to his native Chinarkot village in Maidan area. His whereabouts are unknown.

Taliban are also present in the upper reaches of Buner district, on the border with Swat, where they have distributed pamphlets containing a list of people wanted by them.

This Taliban sanctuary extends to the nearby Chakesar area of Shangla district as well.

'Leadership on the run'

But are these Taliban capable of regrouping and turning the tables on the army, as they have done at least twice since 2007?

Both officials and independent analysts believe the level of threat is nowhere near as high this time around.

"The command and control system of the militants has been destroyed, and their top leadership is on the run, and I'm sure they will be caught soon," says Brig (retired) Mehmood Shah, a security analyst and a former chief of security for Pakistan's north-western tribal region.

"It is a happy day today," he adds.

The NWFP government believes that this success can be built upon by reinforcing the system of civil administration in Malakand region.

It has revived the system of executive magistracy, which was scrapped under the administrative reforms of the previous government led by Gen Pervez Musharraf.

A man greets a returning neighbour in Barikot, in the Swat Valley
Although glad to be home, many remain concerned about security

This, the officials say, will ensure greater coordination between the policing and the administrative arms of the government.

It has also increased the number of administrative sub-divisions in Swat from two to seven to ensure greater administrative coverage of the area.

In addition, it has increased the number of police stations in Swat from nine to 14, and there are plans to recruit an additional 6,000-strong special police force mostly comprising ex-military personnel.

Permanent garrison

"Once the government assumes control of the situation and becomes visible across the valley, people's confidence will be restored," Senator Afrasiab Khattak, the provincial head of the ANP party which rules NWFP, said at a press conference last week.

He said the repatriation of IDPs was an integral part of this policy.

"We are offering no guarantees against guerrilla-style attacks," Mr Khattak said.

"It is a guerrilla war, and some attacks might be expected, but a movement towards normalisation is essential to bring the remaining militants under pressure and to force them to play out their game."

A young girl awaits transport home from the Jalozai Camp in Nowshera
Fewer people in Malakand division now voice support for the Taliban

To handle this situation, Brig Mehmood Shah says the government is contemplating forming a permanent army garrison in Swat.

"This (garrison) can continue the role of a holding operation to combat remaining pockets of militancy, and at the same time boost the confidence of the civil administration," he says.

"In the long run, it can help the civil administration prevent the Taliban from regrouping, or any other anti-state movement from taking roots in the region."

The professedly-secular ANP-led government in NWFP started off by signing a peace deal with the Taliban in Swat.

Though the deal backfired, the ANP's attempt to strip the Taliban of public sympathy seems to have worked, as few people in Malakand division have any words of praise for them any more.

Will it also succeed in setting up an administrative system that works for the war-ravaged Malakand region?

An answer will depend on the ANP's ability to continue to craft strategies that force a widening of the wedge between the army and its long-time protégés, the militants.



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