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Pakistani army controls Buner, but residents fear Taliban's return

DAGGAR, Pakistan — The carcasses of cars and trucks and bombed buildings on Monday greeted the visitor to Buner, the northwestern district that the military government largely has wrested back from Taliban insurgents. So far, however, only a handful of residents have dared to return.

The Taliban takeover of Buner, which is 60 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, provoked alarm in Washington early last month and a public warning from the Obama administration that Pakistan was "abdicating to the Taliban."

The Pakistani government subsequently launched a military operation in Buner, followed by a much larger operation in neighboring Swat. Late last week, a little more than two weeks into the operation led by the paramilitary Frontier Corps, the government said it was safe for people to return to their homes in southern Buner.

The district isn't completely under control, though, and the dull boom of mortar rounds directed at militants a few miles away periodically punctures the tranquillity of Daggar, the district's administrative headquarters, which is now a ghost town.

For a few hours every day, the army has opened the road to Daggar, which twists through the mountains into the district from the village of Rustam in the adjacent Mardan area, where most of those displaced by the battle had fled.

The call for a quick return surprised many, and it could indicate that the government hopes for a similarly swift repatriation of the civilian population to Swat.

The United Nations said Monday that some 1.5 million Pakistanis had been uprooted by the military offensive in Buner, Swat and Dir, another neighboring district. "It has been a long time since there has been a displacement this big," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in Geneva. "It could go back to Rwanda," a reference to the 1994 exodus from a genocide in the Central African country.

On the road from Rustam to Daggar, the destruction is worst at Ambela Pass and the nearby village of Ambela, where some of the heaviest fighting took place. Rows of shops collapsed under bombing and burnt-out vehicles lie along the roadside. Bullet holes pock many buildings. The damage that could be seen from the main road, however, fell short of the stories told by many escaping residents that the Pakistani army had flattened villages.

Tanks prowled the side streets in Ambela, while Pakistani troops took positions on ridges above the road, where they monitored traffic and barked orders at suspicious vehicles.

"Our wheat is rotting in the fields. We have to go back to harvest," 21-year-old Nazir Mohammad said as he rode through Ambela in the back of a pickup Monday with 10 family members, including seven women.

The flow of people is still out of the conflict zone, however. More than half the 600,000-strong Buner population had fled, and only about 100 to 120 families returned Sunday, local authorities estimated. Those who went home found no electricity or running water.

Pakistan launched an operation against the extremists in Buner on April 28. Progress in the fighting has been rapid but there are still three pockets of resistance in northern Buner, according to Yahya Akhundzada, the top civilian administrator in the district. The toughest spot lies between the villages of Sultanwas, about four miles north of Daggar, and Pir Baba, around 10 miles north of Daggar, he said.

When the army extended operations to Swat earlier this month, fighters attempting to escape the bombardment there joined the militants around Sultanwas and Pir Baba, bolstering their strength to some 300 to 350, Akhundzada said. He estimated that some 500 Taliban were still holed up in houses, caves and newly built tunnels in Buner.

"It has started, a fierce battle (around the Sultanwas area). There are two or three (Taliban) in each house. They fire at you from all directions." said Akhundzada, speaking from his office in a heavily guarded compound on a hill above Daggar. "This may take a day or it may take months."

Previously, the Taliban had occupied all the strategically important high ground around Daggar.

The Taliban "are totally playing a military game. Who's giving them such good plans? In Daggar, we had to drop troops behind them by helicopter," Akhundzada said.

When the militants invaded Buner, around 80 percent of the 448 police officers for the district had deserted. They're now back, but the local authorities think that they need more than 1,000 police officers to secure the area.

"We need more vehicles, and armored vehicles, greater forces (manpower), heavy weapons," said Abdur Rashid, Buner's top police official. "There is always a danger of these people coming back."

In only one village on the road to Daggar, Swahri, were there were signs of daily life reviving. Most of the shops were shuttered but in some market stalls merchants were trying to interest passers-by in their goods, and a few men were hanging around the bazaar. A minibus dropped off the latest returnees at the crossroads, and they looked apprehensive.

"I don't know what will happen here, but I am thinking of moving to Karachi," said Noor ul Huda, the 53-year-old owner of a cloth store in Swahri. "There's no business here. There's no peace here."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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