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Monday, February 16, 2009

Taleban's stranglehold brings fear to Swat

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. 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. 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. 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.

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