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Pakistan tackles Swat, a key militant area

The Army launched fresh operations this week, following mounting pressure to retake the onetime tourist idyll now controlled by ultraconservative militants.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2009

Battle: Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani greeted a soldier while touring Swat Jan. 28. The military has launched fresh operations in the valley, vowing to retake control there.

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Lahore, Pakistan

The Pakistani Army's renewed effort to reclaim control of the Swat Valley – a tourist idyll taken over by ultraconservative militants allied with the Taliban – has taken on symbolic importance in the country's fight against a growing insurgency.

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The Army launched fresh operations in Swat Wednesday, as Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani vowed to retake the troubled region following growing criticism over what analysts and human rights groups are calling the complete loss of government control. By the estimates of residents and local officials, up to 80 percent of Swat is now under militant control.

Unlike the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where militants also hold sway, Swat falls in the "settled areas" of Pakistan.

The strategic significance of the Swat Valley is difficult to underplay, says Badar Alam, a senior editor for Pakistan's Herald magazine. "If it falls to the Taliban, despite not being geographically linked to Afghanistan – it will send the message they can claim victory in part of the NWFP [Northwest Frontier Province], if not the country."

Since 2007 the military has waged an on-and-off offensive in Swat that has failed to contain militants. Instead, they have established a "parallel administration" and sharia courts, and carry out political killings and attacks on girls' schools, which they oppose.

'Reign of terror'

In light of a renewed Army offensive, residents say they feel trapped. "People here are terrified at the thought of another massive military operation," says Hafiz Khan, a father of three who runs a computer business in Mingora, a major town in the district. But, he says, it's either that or allow the Pakistani Taliban to continue their reign of terror.

Within 100 miles of the capital Islamabad, Swat was until recent yearsa thriving tourist venue renowned for its lush forests, clear rivers, and ski resorts. But since their resurgence last September, militias led by Maulana Fazlullah have conducted brutal killings of political foes and those deemed "immoral." On Sunday, 43 people – including former and present ministers – were added to the hit list, which is read on the radio. Almost all of the politicians named have since fled.

Headless bodies are strung up daily in a public area residents now call Khooni Chowk ("bloody intersection"), for sins ranging from non-adherence to dress codes to defiance of the militants' regime, says Niaz Ali Khan, a student from Mingora who studies in Swat.

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