(Adds government comment)
By Junaid Khan
MINGORA, Pakistan, Jan 19 Pakistani Taliban insurgents blew up four schools in the northwestern Swat region on Monday hours after a cabinet minister vowed that the government would reopen schools in the violence-plagued valley.
The scenic Swat Valley was until recently one of Pakistan's prime tourist destinations but Islamist militants aiming to impose a harsh form of Islamic law began battling security forces in 2007.
Residents say the militants are now virtually in complete control of the valley, which is 130 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad and not on the Afghan border, including its main town of Mingora, where the schools were destroyed early on Monday.
"Militants blew up two girls schools and two boys schools," a top government official in the valley, Shaukat Yousafzai, told Reuters. "Attacks on troops are understandable but why are they destroying schools?"
Schools are closed for a winter break and no one was hurt in the attacks.
As with Afghanistan's Taliban, their Pakistani counterparts oppose education for girls and they recently banned female education in Swat altogether.
The militants also see schools as symbols of government authority and they say the army posts soldiers in them.
Yousafzai said the militants had destroyed 170 schools in the valley where about 55,000 girls and boys were enrolled in government-run institutions.
Pakistan is struggling to stem growing Islamist influence and violence in the northwest as it keeps a wary eye on its eastern border with India after militant attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai led to a spike in tension between the neighbours.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman told reporters on Sunday the government aimed to ensure that schools in Swat would reopen on March 1, when they are due to go back after the winter break.
But that would seem like wishful thinking.
The militants have shot, blown up or beheaded their opponents while broadcasting edicts and threats over their FM radio.
Many families have fled to the nearby cities of Peshawar and Mardan, while many police officers have either deserted or simply refused to serve, residents say.
Yousafzai said teachers were also refusing to work.
"I try to convince them but they're scared. They doubt the government's ability to protect them," he said.
Provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain vowed action against the militants.
"They're out of control," Hussain told reporters in Peshawar.
"In the past, when we took action against them, we were criticised ... Now people realise that they're cruel and they want us to go after them and we'll do it."
The president of a Swat teachers' association said his members would only go back to work if the government restored peace and shut down the militants' radio, or if the militants issued an order over their radio for a return to work.
"The ground reality is there's no safety," said association president Ziauddin Yousafzai. "If they're destroying schools during a curfew, they can do anything. Even if the authorities announce schools are open, nobody will go and parents won't send their kids."
Many of the militants in Swat infiltrated from al Qaeda and Taliban enclaves in ethnic Pashtun lands on the Afghan border.
The military launched a big offensive in late 2007 to clear them out. The militants withdrew up remote side valleys to avoid government artillery and air attacks but slipped back into the main valley when the offensive ended. (Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and Sugita Katyal)