Sana al Haq in Mingora and Declan Walsh in Islamabad
The skiing season at Malam Jabba, Pakistan‘s only ski resort, is over. Yesterday the pistes echoed with the sound of explosions as fighter jets screamed overhead, part of the Pakistan military’s intensifying campaign to dislodge the Taliban from the Swat Valley.
An hour’s drive away in Mingora, the war-racked valley’s main town, the Taliban and army are readying for an urban battle unprecedented in the short history of Pakistan’s battle against the Taliban.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, today said the army was fighting for "the survival of the country", speaking after an emergency cabinet meeting.
The country’s leaders, encouraged by the US, launched the full-scale offensive in Swat last week in order to halt the spread of Taliban control which had spread to districts within 60 miles of the capital. The battle has now been taken to the heart of the north-west region of the country which the Taliban has seized as its powerbase, and in particular to the beleaguered, frightened town of Mingora.
This once-bustling riverside community, nestled between orchards and rolling mountains, has become a hub of the dispossessed and the desperate. Since fighting erupted last Tuesday, following the collapse of a fragile peace deal, tens of thousands of frantic residents have fled, scrambling on to buses, cars and even rickshaws. They left behind a ghost city controlled by the Taliban, under siege from army mortar fire and helicopter gunship assaults, and tensed in the expectation of an army ground offensive that could lead to urban warfare reminiscent of Russian bids to clear Grozny, Chechnya, in 1999 and 2000.
At Mingora hospital yesterday embattled medics struggled to tend to dozens of residents injured by army shelling and stray gunfire. Riaz Khan, a 36-year-old teacher, his wife and two daughters occupied four of the beds, suffering shrapnel wounds to the arms and legs. His two other daughters were killed by an army mortar last week, he told an Associated Press reporter.
If, as expected, the army launches a major ground offensive to dislodge the Taliban, casualties are expected to rise on all sides. Yesterday the army said it had killed 55 fighters in clashes over the previous 24 hours. The Taliban have laid mines under bridges and along roads across the city. In some cases, wires trail from the bombs into houses where fighters, some fresh-faced teenagers, lie in wait.
Others have seized the tallest buildings, mounting rocket launchers on rooftops and taking cover behind water tanks. At the Continental Hotel, a former haunt of the local and foreign journalists, the rooms are occupied by fighters, the walls are pocked with bullet holes and many windows have shattered.
Education has always been a hot issue for the Taliban – last January they ordered the closure of all girls’ schools – so it is perversely appropriate that the war is being fought between schools.On Thursday the Observer visited the Pamir building, which until recently housed the Educators School and College. It was filled with Taliban, their weapons trained on a contingent of soldiers located in a deserted school a few streets away.
The target is the last military bastion in the otherwise Taliban-controlled city, and the soldiers hunkered down inside also face fire from a second position: the Mullababa high school, on the far side of a desiccated riverbed. The army says that 15,000 members of the security forces are located in Swat, many under siege in two camps across the river Swat in Kanju village. One is located on the city golf course, where heavy artillery booms from the rutted greens; the other is inside an unused air strip that has been the target of several Taliban assaults.
The Taliban are bringing in fresh fighters, drawing others back from the Buner valley nearby, where they have been engaged in fierce combat for two weeks. To reach Mingora they pass along a mountain road that crosses the White Palace, a luxury hotel where the Queen stayed during a visit to Swat in 1961.
The army has scored some successes. Yesterday the body of Taliban commander Akbar Ali laid unclaimed in no man’s land, a day after he was killed. An earlier rocket assault targeted Taliban fighters in a nearby emerald mine a few kilometres from the city. The mine was reopened a few months ago by Sirajuddin, a local commander with a scraggly gray beard whose previous job was as Taliban spokesman. He laid down strict rules – miners would pray at the appointed times, suffer the loss of an arm and a leg if they attempted to steal gemstones, and give one third of their takings to the Beit ul Mal, or Taliban treasury.
The mine provided rich, illicit pickings. One commander told the Observer he had sold half a million rupees worth of emeralds (£4,200) to a trader, one of about two dozen who came to the mine from Peshawar for a weekly auction. But the Taliban gravy train ground to a halt last Thursday when helicopter gunships pounded the mine, killing 35 militants, the army said.
On the plains to the south of the valley, in Mardan and Swabi districts, a humanitarian nightmare is brewing. More than 200,000 people have fled, another 300,000 are on the move or about to leave, according to the UN, adding to another 550,000 people displaced by earlier fighting in the tribal belt and Frontier province.
As aid workers rush to erect camps, supplies are limited and tempers quickly fray. Yesterday afternoon a riot briefly erupted in Sheikh Shahzad camp, near Mardan, as angry villagers looted UN supplies. Gilani appealed for international help with the ballooning humanitarian crisis that affects up to one million people, according to the UN. He promised the army would strive to end the crisis quickly – an outcome that appeared highly unlikely.
Not everyone has escaped. An unknown number of besieged residents remain trapped, unwilling or unable to leave their homes. Hunkered behind thin walls they survive with no electricity, dwindling water supplies and in fear of stray bombs and gunfire.
Those left behind fear what lies ahead. Reached by phone Khaista Bibi, 55, a resident, said she had hardly eaten in two days. "The situation seems impossible."