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There is curfew for most of the day and streets are deserted even when restrictions are lifted for a few hours. Analysts and residents say the confidence of people cannot be restored until the top leadership is eliminated. - File photo

MINGORA Abdul Wadood has opened his cloth shop after three months. Broken pieces of glass litter the hallway and the wall is riddled with bullet marks, indicative of the fighting between Taliban and the security forces.

Most of the shops in the town's central Sohrab Chowk market are still closed.

'I hope there will be no fighting here any more,' Wadood said dusting the cloth racks. He is among hundreds of thousands of people who have returned home after military declared the area cleared of insurgents. But it is going to take a long time for people like Wadood to revive their business and return to normal life.

Police and civilian administration personnel have started returning to their posts and electricity supply has been restored. The life is slowly returning to normal in the biggest town of the Swat Valley which was a centre of fighting until a few weeks ago. But the situation is far from stable. People are still wary of the situation.

There is curfew for most of the day and streets are deserted even when restrictions are lifted for a few hours. 'The situation is still uncertain,' said Shazeb Ali, aged 28, owner of a mobile shop. 'We can hear the sound of firing some distance away.'

Residents streamed back home when the government declared the area secured, ignoring the warning by international relief organisations that the security situation was still not conducive for the people to return. More than 400,000 people have so far returned and repatriation of rest of the displaced population is expected to be completed in a few weeks.

But it is too early to declare a victory. Army officials concede that the insurgents have not been completely rooted out and there are still some strong pockets of resistance. 'Taliban are still present in some mountainous areas,' said Brigadier Tahir Hameed. The troops have been battling the Taliban in Shahdehri, Kuza Bandi and Matta, not far from Mingora.

The biggest failure of the army operation has been the escape of the top militant leadership. Army claims to have eliminated second and third tiers of Taliban commanders, but the top leadership has so far survived, raising fears of insurgents regrouping once the operation is over.

Analysts and residents said the confidence of people could not be restored until the top leadership is eliminated. 'Everyone here dreads that Taliban could return any time,' said Shamsher Khan, 40, who is in hotel business.

Mullah Fazlullah, the architect of Swat insurgency, was said to be critically wounded in an air strike on his hideout. But the claim was denied by Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman.

Last week Muslim Khan who is also on the list of 10 most wanted men told journalists on phone that the entire Taliban command was intact and had pulled back as part of a strategy. He also played to journalists a purported recorded audio message from Fazlullah. Senior intelligence sources believe that some of the commanders might have fled to adjoining tribal areas and communicating with the media from there.

Army officials concede that the escape of the top militant leadership is a major cause of concern, but dismiss fears about Taliban's return saying there is no possibility of their regrouping. 'Their capacity to regroup and launch major attacks has been destroyed,' said a senior official. He said the army was going to stay in the area to ensure that the militants were not able to return. But they do not rule out the possibility of a long-drawn guerrilla war.

'We cannot completely eliminate them just by military operation,' said Lt-Gen Nadeem Ahmed, who heads the Special Support Group. 'We will need the cooperation of the local people to keep an eye on their activities,' said the general who is the overall in charge.

The government plans to strengthen the police force which, according to military officials, would have to take more responsibility in countering militancy in the next phase when the repatriation of the displaced people was completed. Besides strengthening the police force, the government is also introducing the concept of community police which would be more integrated with the local population.

Despite significant military successes, the battle for Swat is far from over. A major challenge for the government is to boost the morale of police and civilian officials, who had been the main targets of militant attacks, and to restore the confidence of the people in the civilian institutions. The militants have been pushed out of a large part of the valley, but they have not yet been fully defeated. The second stage of the battle, to maintain the gains of the operation is going to be much tougher.