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Soldiers show a cave to journalists atop the Baine Baba Ziarat mountain in Swat district.—Reuters

BAINI BABA ZIARAT The ridge overlooking the valley afforded a spectacular view of the enchanting Swat region. It would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago that such idyllic surroundings could one day shelter a band of desperadoes.

A labyrinth of caves and underground bunkers shield the Taliban from the blitz carried out by the military. 

'It was very difficult to dislodge them from that height,' said Brigadier Suba Khan, who led the assault on the strategic ridge popularly known as Baini Baba Ziarat.

After two weeks of ferocious fighting his men captured the height, 7,000 feet above sea level, on Wednesday — the military's biggest success so far in the battle against Taliban in Malakand division. 

'They fought to the last man,' said Lt-Col Mohamed Riaz, who led the final charge. Up to 150 militants were killed in the battle, described by the two military officials as the bloodiest since the government ordered the operation in Swat to reclaim territory lost to Taliban.

'Some 100 bodies are probably still buried inside one of them,' said Colonel Riaz, pointing towards one of the destroyed caves.

Baini Baba Ziarat was also used by the Taliban as a centre for training youths forcibly recruited by them. Mohamed Akhtar, a 14-year-old schoolboy, was taken to the camp five months ago to be trained as a suicide bomber. 

'There were dozens of young boys in the camp,' said Akhtar, looking emaciated and frightened. Akhtar, who was rescued by the security forces, said 'At least three of my colleagues turned suicide bomber.'

After driving out militants from Matta and Khwazakhela, the two major towns of northern Swat, the forces are now pressing towards Peochar valley and Mingora town, where the militants are still entrenched. 

Normality is gradually returning to Khawazakhela town, a town at a critical crossroads linking Swat to other districts. 

'The town is completely safe and people who fled the fighting have started returning,' said Maj-Gen Sajjad Ghani, who is leading the operating in northern Swat.

He was hopeful that residents would be able to return to Matta after two weeks. The capture of Matta, a Taliban stronghold, has enabled the army to soften up the enemy with heavy bombings in Charbagh, regarded as a bridgehead for advancing on Mingora. 

Although the military has made significant gains, commanders held out little prospect for an early end to the fighting. 'We cannot give any timeline for an end to fighting,' said Gen Ghani.

The main objective of the military operation was to dismantle the militants' fighting machine and to wipe out their leadership, the general recalled.

The loss of Matta might have weakened the Taliban, but they are still putting up fierce resistance in some key areas, demonstrating their prowess to fight a prolonged war.

'The hardcore militants would never surrender. We have to eliminate them,' a realistic but tough Gen Ghani warned. Some senior militant commanders have been killed in the recent clashes, but the top leadership has come out unscathed.
Mullah Fazalullah, the firebrand whose inflammatory rhetoric has grabbed media attention, is believed to have made a number of narrow escapes. Other commanders like Shah Doran, Muslim Khan and Bin Yamin have also evaded capture so far. 

According to military officials, a large number of Arabs, Afghans and Uzbeks have joined the fighting in Swat. Three Uzbek and Afghan fighters captured by the security forces were paraded before journalists recently. 

Military authorities are certain the militants have a lifeline across the border in Afghanistan. The journalists were shown a letter from Mullah Omar, the supreme commander of Taliban, pledging financial and 'moral support' to the Swat insurgents.

Drugs and kidnapping for ransom are also believed to be a major source of funding for the insurgents. 

The effectiveness of the military operation has instilled confidence into non-combatants. The nation saw an inspirational example on Thursday when people of Kalam beat back militants who were trying to gain a foothold in the town. Earlier Bahrein had set the precedent.

'Such actions are helping the army,' Gen Ghani said. 'The people are also coming to us with information about Taliban activities in their areas.'

Although the operation has restored a semblance of sanity to a hapless populace, it is still a long way to go before they feel so safe as to even think of returning home.