Pakistani villagers rejoice at Taliban retreat

May 16th, 2009 - 10:04 am ICT by IANS  

Taliban By Nadeem Sarwar
Ghurghushte (Pakistan), May 16 (DPA) Some 2,000 residents of Ghurghushte, a hamlet in the embattled Buner district in north-western Pakistan, finally have a reason to rejoice - a return to normalcy as the military has forced the Taliban to flee the village.

“They (the Taliban) terrorised people, murdered the police, forced the women to wear shuttlecock burkas, and threatened the school for girls,” said local mayor Abdul Wahid cheerfully, as he stood in the main bazaar of the village surrounded by green mountains.

“People are happy they are gone,” he said, adding that he hoped the army operation succeeds and the militants never return to the area.

Hundreds of militants invaded Buner in early April from the neighbouring Swat district, where a controversial peace deal - under which the government accepted Taliban demands to introduce Islamic sharia law in the Malakand region to which Buner and Swat belong - emboldened them to expand territory under their control.

They captured state buildings, blocked the three key routes linking the district to the rest of the country, carried out armed patrols in villages and started training new recruits.

During their occasional patrols in Ghurghushte, generally a very peaceful area, the militants raided a warehouse of the World Food Programme and looted three trucks of edible oil, which they later sold in the local market at discount rates.

In the adjoining village of Totalai, Taliban forbade the barbers to shave men. They searched vehicles, smashed music CDs if they found any and replaced them with their own jihadi CDs.

Except from some criminal elements and few jobless young men, these harsh and aggressive tactics won the militants little support in Buner’s villages or the rest of the country.

The Taliban move into a district which lies hardly 100 km from the capital Islamabad came as a wake-up call for most Pakistanis who suddenly saw themselves besieged by a monster they nurtured for more than a decade and a half.

Almost every political and religious party condemned the Taliban, who were dumped even by their old allies.

The Panjpir Islamic seminary in north-western Swabi district is the place where almost all the main Taliban leaders in Swat and Buner, including the regional Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, received their religious education.

Previously closely associated with the Taliban, the Panjpir madrassa now disowns Fazlullah and his armed campaign.

“We have nothing to do with these people. Here we teach Islam and not how to behead human beings,” said Tariq, the administrator of the 80-year-old seminary, during an interview in Panjpir village.

Another associate, who requested not to be named because of his government job, promised resistance by the followers of Panjpir madrassa if Taliban invaded from Buner.

With public support at hand and praise from the international community, Pakistani forces launched a major offensive in Lower Dir April 26, and expanded it to Buner and Swat in the following days.

More than 800 militants have so far been killed while the security forces have lost 43 men.

A long-time suspected collaborator of the Taliban, Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is also taking the fight against Taliban more seriously this time. “The government and military have decided to eradicate the militants,” an official said.

Despite heavy casualties inflicted on the rebels and some gains here and there, the around 12,000 Pakistani troops pitched against some 5,000 highly motivated and well-trained guerrilla fighters have yet to prove they can win and retain control over regained areas for the long run.

But the fierce fighting produced an unprecedented number of internally displaced people in the country’s history. Rows of tents are appearing in Mardan, Swabi and Charsadda districts to provide shelter for 834,000 recently displaced people.

Around 550,000 people have been displaced already by last year’s offensive in Swat and recent offensives in the restive tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands more fled the Malakand region Friday as the authorities lifted curfew in some areas.

North-West Frontier Province Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain warned the numbers of fresh displaced people could reach as high as 1.5 million, a major source of concern for Pakistan that has little resources to accommodate them.

In the absence of adequate living conditions, resentment is growing against the military operation in the refugee camps, which can turn into new recruitment centres for the militants.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned during his visit to a refugee camp in Mardan that the issue could further destabilise the country.

“If you are not able to cope with the challenges posed by overwhelming displaced (numbers) this population will become a huge factor of destabilisation,” Guterres said.

Back in Buner, where the people recently realised how good it is to live without the Taliban, locals have a positive outlook.

“People are suffering but they will forget their suffering if we are able to get rid of Taliban soon,” said Mohammad Sharif, 43, a constructor in Totalai.

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