MINGORA: Army and police have launched a joint search operation in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat District against Pakistani Taliban militants, officials with direct knowledge of the activity said, amid widespread reports the group is attempting to regain a foothold in the mountainous area they once ruled with an iron fist.
Insurgents from the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, took partial control of Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2007, before being ousted two years later in a major military operation hailed as a telling blow against militant violence.
During this time, militants unleashed a reign of terror, killing and beheading politicians, singers, soldiers and opponents. They banned female education and destroyed nearly 200 schools for girls.
Last month the Pakistani military denied reports TTP fighters had returned to Swat, calling the news “grossly exaggerated and misleading.”
But local elders as well as police and government officials interviewed by Arab News this week reported the return of up to 300 Taliban militants to the valley and said localized joint operations by police and the army had been launched to quell the movement.
Locals’ fears of a Taliban comeback were most visible last week when hundreds of people took to the streets in Swat Valley to demand peace and protection.
The protest came just days after a bombing claimed by the TTP killed eight people, including influential anti-Taliban leader Idrees Khan, in what was the first major bombing in the area in over a decade.
Taliban militants last week also kidnapped 10 employees of a telecom company and demanded Rs100 million ($418,000) for their release, according to a police report filed with the local counterterrorism department.
Three police officers in Swat, including one with direct knowledge of the operation, confirmed that a search operation led by police and military officials to identify and clear militant hideouts was ongoing.
A fourth security official said the “situation was fully being monitored,” without confirming an anti-TTP operation or whether the army was involved.
All officials declined to be named as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the activity.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and a spokesperson for his ministry, Ali Nawaz, did not respond to requests for comment. The Inter-Services Public Relations, the Pakistani military’s media wing, declined to comment for this story.
Representatives of the TTP could not be reached for comment on their tactics in Swat Valley.
“Law enforcement officials are alert and maintaining necessary vigil and alertness in the area and law and order is being maintained,” one security official said, declining to be named.
A senior police official said at least 300 Taliban militants had been identified as being present on the Shaur, Peuchar, Kanala and Balasoor mountain tops of the Swat District’s Matta Tehsil in recent months.
“A search operation has started, posts have been set up and Special Services Group’s commandos have arrived,” the official, who had direct knowledge of the operation, told Arab News.
Barrister Mohammed Ali Saif, a spokesperson of the KP provincial government, confirmed the “scattered” presence of Taliban militants in Swat and the launch of a police operation but did not confirm if the military was involved.
“There is no specific area with a permanent presence of the TTP. They roam quietly and they have some local supporters there already,” he said.
“But wherever there is information of their presence, action is being taken. When they appear, they are either arrested or are killed. The province takes actions against them whenever there is a report about their presence or there is information that they or anyone else is involved in any illegal or terrorist activity.”
Saif also said he could not confirm if a full-scale military offensive such as in the past was being planned, adding that the decision would be taken by the federal government and the army.
Zahid Khan, an anti-Taliban leader of the Swat Qaumi Jirga, told Arab News the group had complained to police four months ago about a growing Taliban presence, but their concerns were rebuffed.
“They dismissed us when we inquired from police and local administration about the return of the Taliban,” Khan told Arab News.
But the police officer involved in the search operation said militants were being identified and action would be taken: “We have the capacity to eliminate them.”
Fears of a Taliban comeback have surfaced while the group has been holding peace talks with the government. But isolated militant attacks and security raids on militant hideouts have continued, raising concerns that these talks could break in the coming months, if not weeks.
A formal ceasefire between Pakistan and the TTP is still in place.