SPINKAI (South Waziristan), May 18: Spinkai is like a ghost town. There are scores of mud and pucca houses along the river bed and beyond in a valley surrounded by mountains, but not a soul is living there.

And it’s not that no one had ever lived here. A peep into some of the houses once occupied by local tribesmen indicated that these were abandoned by the occupants in such haste that many of them even left their precious belongings behind.

There are houses where blankets and quilts were left on beds. In some of them crockery and kitchen utensils are spread all over, and in one house even the deep freezer and other electronic equipment were left behind.

The situation appears even more disturbing as one moves a couple of hundred metres away from the residential quarters to what possibly was Spinkai’s own market and business area. Not a single shop that is now intact. Even petrol stations and local factories have been razed to the ground. A few of these may have been damaged by gunfire, but we are told that almost all others were destroyed under the infamous local law of ‘collective punishment’.

It all happened with the start of a full-fledged security operation called ‘Zalzala’ by Pakistan army’s 14 Division in January to flush out Baitullah Mehsud’s Taliban militants from the area. Until then the area was infested with pro-Taliban militants, with some villagers providing them support and shelter. Many militants were killed during the operation, and within three days the security forces were in full control of the area. The army later captured a few other villages and small towns to put the squeeze on Baitullah Mehsud.

Since then the only people to be found in the area are army soldiers. They control every hilltop and ridge and do not let anyone come near the area without specific permission. Civilians, we are told, have been relocated to make-shift refugee camps, and are being treated as ‘internally displaced people’.

As the horrific scene of demolished shops and abandoned houses was about to unfold to members of a journalists’ team that for the first time had been flown into this remote Mehsud territory by Pakistan army, a senior army commander pointed towards a huge compound which, according to him, was the real cause of all the trouble. We were told that the abandoned compound, with several small rooms, and a small mosque, was in fact “a nursery for preparing suicide bombers”.

According to Major-General Tariq Khan, who commands the 14 Division, “it was like a factory that had been recruiting 9- to 12-year-old boys, and turning them into suicide bombers”.

The suicide nursery was being run by one Qari Hussain who is regarded as the man leading the campaign of suicide bombings in Pakistan. He was given protection by Baitullah and now he has become the biggest ideologue of the militants and someone who specialises in indoctrinating teenagers in violence in the name of Islam. He is still at large and it is not clear where he has established his new nursery of young bombers.

Army officers stationed there admit that until the operation started they only had some idea about such activities, and it was only in January that they discovered how organised these militants were in their mission to recruit, indoctrinate and launch suicide bombers. The computers, other equipment and literature seized from the place, some of which were shown to us, give graphic details of the training process in this so-called ‘nursery’. There are videos of young boys carrying out executions, a classroom where 10- to 12-year olds are sitting in formations, with white band of Quranic verses wrapped around their forehead, and there are training videos to show how improvsided explosive devices are made and detonated.

Now this entire area is under the control of army, which by local tribal traditions and laws of the semi-autonomous territory is being treated as an occupation force. But this all may soon change, as the new political governments at the centre and in the NWFP are attempting to negotiate a peace deal, part of which would mean withdrawal of army from the tribal area, and return of the displaced Mehsud tribals to Spinkai and other towns and villages.

But Maj Gen Tariq Khan says it’s incorrect to refer it as withdrawal of army from the area. “We are not moving out, and are only re-adjusting our positions” to provide space for the implementation of the peace accord, he said.

According to him, the troops will move out of the Mehsud territory, but would continue to control all the four roads that lead to this part of South Waziristan. And he was confident that as long as “this siege” continued, “terrorists or miscreants from this area would not be able to carry out their activities elsewhere in the country”.

He, however, admitted that some might still slip out, but insisted that the three-pronged ‘Operation Tri-Star’, of which ‘Operation Zalzala’ was one effective part, had forced Baitullah Mehsud to seek a peace deal. “I have made the entire area from D.I. Khan up to Jhandola weapon free, and need be, I can do it in the rest of the area too”, he said.

One thing that Gen Tariq Khan and some of his field commanders admitted in the course of briefings and tour of the area was that the fighting in the area was not directly linked to anti-Al Qaeda activity. It was being perceived as an operation against the group that calls itself the Pakistani Taliban, and whose real targets have been the Pakistani security forces and Pakistan’s settled areas, rather than Afghanistan. These officers admitted that except for two Uzbeks, who were killed during the operation, they were not able to spot any foreign militants, and certainly not Arabs. “They maybe in other parts of the tribal region like the Wazir area or North Waziristan, but certainly not in Mehsud terrioty,” one officer said.

However, ISPR’s director-general Major-General Athar Abbas was of the view that both the activities were inter-linked, and the overall security operation was aimed at cleansing the entire area of militants and put an end to their activities, whether targeted against forces across the border in Afghanistan, or within Pakistan.

But as the troops prepare to withdraw, or re-locate, as part of the peace process, uncertainty remains in the area. Although the army officers on the ground are pretty confident that their monitoring mechanism may continue to discourage the militants from returning to the area, they nevertheless admit that the possibility of the Mehsud militants re-organising for a counter-offensive remains.

Then there are also question marks over the fate of previous such deals, because in the past Baitullah Mehsud and leaders of other militant groups in Waziristan had resorted to fresh attacks after accusing the authorities of violating the agreements. The military officers controlling the area say they are not privy to the peace negotiations or the possible deal that may come through. However, they concede that with security forces on the alert there was a need to give peace process a chance.