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Pakistani Military Battling Swat Insurgency Pins Hopes on New Government

Last year much of Pakistan's scenic Swat valley had been taken over by a band of Islamic militants. Fighters loyal to radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah seized control of police stations and set-up crude courts based on Sharia [Islamic law] throughout the once popular tourist destination. After sending in more than 10,000 troops who spent several months battling militants in the territory's rugged mountains, Pakistan's army says it has regained control of more than 90 percent of the region. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Swat that army commanders now say the region's newly elected leaders must address the issues that allowed the insurgency to gain support there in the first place.

Standing on a windswept ridge in Swat with a commanding view of valleys on either side, Major Azmat Abbas Hussein points to a nearby cellular tower that until recently relayed more than just phone calls.

"This was, in fact, used by Maulana Fazlullah. He was misleading and misguiding the civil population in this area. He used to run his FM radio from this place," he said.

Maulana Fazlullah is the local cleric who commanded a band of about six-thousand fighters that until recently controlled much of this valley. His illegal mobile FM radio stations, known as Radio Maulana, broadcast sermons advocating Sharia law, that made him famous throughout the region.

Army spokesman general Athar Abbas says that while Fazlullah attracted support from some fighters outside Swat, including from Pakistan's tribal areas, most of his supporters were locals.

"The source of the problem, the roots, they lay here. And this is a very old phenomenon here which was taken over by Maulana Fazlullah of late, but it was much before him," he explained.

Officials say Swat Valley's slow judicial system and weak police force allowed Fazlullah to gain popular support for his armed insurgency.

Major General Nasser Janjua commands the military operations in Swat. He says that as Fazlullah's influence grew, many locals welcomed what they thought would improve the poor law and order situation in the region.

"Affluent, well-read and moderate segments of society appealed for army operations," he explained. "However, a large percentage of the population comprising middle, lower middle and lower class still displayed their urge to have Sharia in place."

As Fazlullah's fighters overran government offices and police stations, they turned much of the once popular tourist retreat into a "no-go zone" in the words of army commanders. Locals say militants held impromptu courts in village bazaars and beheaded people accused of being spies.

General Abbas says the harsh actions undermined Fazlullah's promises of a more efficient judicial system and soured his sympathizers.

"They were sympathizers because they had no choice, because of the breakdown in law and order in this area, there was no alternative with the people," he noted.

As concern over the spreading insurgency mounted, the military increased operations against the militants in late November. Soldiers pursued rebels up the valley's mountainsides to strategic bunkers dug into nearby peaks, killing some 230 fighters and arresting some 160 others. The army now controls nearly all of the high ground and this week flew journalists to three captured mountain outposts.

Other militants fled Swat or are in one of the four "pockets" of local resistance where Pakistani soldiers do not patrol.

Swat is still plagued by sporadic attacks such as last week's roadside blast that killed 13 people in a wedding party. General Nasser says a curfew remains in local villages from 8PM until 6AM in the morning.

"Because if we do not do that, there will be a lot of targeted killings," he said. "These militants will come and kill the pro-government people."

Military officials say the key to improving security is improving the local judicial system and in turn gaining the trust of local residents. Voters recently rejected the Islamist parties that dominated the last elections in 2002, instead electing secular, nationalist ANP candidates to six of Swat's seven seats in the provincial assembly.

"The civil government has undertaken this task and they are introducing whatever is the desire of most of the people here and not necessarily what the Fazlullah group is advocating or enforcing here," said General Abbas.

What Maulana Fazlullah is advocating these days is not known. His radio stations have been shut down and the military has been jamming illegal broadcasts in the valley. Military officials say he remains at large, along with most of the 6,000 fighters he once commanded.