MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan lifted on Tuesday restrictions on the return of people displaced by fighting in the Swat valley, hoping to boost confidence among residents wary the Taliban might come back.
The army went on the offensive in late April to crush a Taliban insurgency in Swat after the militants took over a district 100 km (60 miles) from Islamabad, raising fears for U.S. ally Pakistan’s stability and the safety of its nuclear weapons.
The ensuing exodus of nearly 2 million people was one of the biggest human migrations of recent times, stretching cash-strapped Pakistan’s resources and prompting a global appeal for humanitarian help.
After two months of battles, and the death of more than 1,700 militants according to the government, the former tourist valley has been cleared although soldiers are still carrying out searches in some areas.
Authorities began taking people home on Monday, using a fleet of buses and trucks to send back 650 families who volunteered to return.
But, fearing chaos on the main road into the valley and wary of militants trying to slip back in, authorities on Monday stopped private vehicles from entering the valley, only letting government buses and trucks through.
That restriction was lifted on Tuesday, said a spokesman for the government unit overseeing the humanitarian effort.
“Now, hopefully, the numbers will swell as there’s no restriction and their confidence will be boosted when they see their fellows living there in peace,” said the spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Waseem Shahid.
No top Taliban leaders in the valley are known to have been killed or captured and residents have seen previous military drives wound up only for the militants to re-emerge from their mountain hideouts, prompting hesitation among residents about returning.
The army and government insist that this time the Taliban will not be allowed back.
Most of the displaced moved in with family or friends but nearly 300,000 were settled in sweltering tent camps. Authorities want to get the camps cleared before helping others go back.
Pakistan’s action against the militants has won U.S. praise as it steps up the war against the Afghan Taliban over the border in the run-up to an August 20 Afghan presidential election.
Pakistan says it will next go after Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in his stronghold in South Waziristan region on the Afghan border.
Mehsud is Pakistan’s most notorious militant, accused of a string of attacks including the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Militants in Pakistan have also been trying to cut a vital supply route for Western forces in land-locked Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass.
On Tuesday, militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a truck carrying fuel for Western forces in Afghanistan, killing the driver, government officials said.
Separately, a pro-government militia killed 23 Taliban in a clash that broke out on Monday in the Mohmand region on the Afghan border, to the north of the Khyber Pass, a senior government official said. The fighting was still going on.
With the return of the displaced underway, residents of Mingora, Swat’s main town, were looking to life heading back to normal.
“What a happy moment for us, they’re returning,” high school student Sajjad Alam told Reuters as he stood in the town’s Green Chowk, its main square where until recently militants used to string up the bodies of their rivals.
“God willing, life will be back to normal here and we’ll get rid of the fear that haunts us,” said Alam. He said he, like thousands of others, had never left the town despite the fighting and a curfew that lasted for weeks.
“I hope the era of cruelty is over. Now we need to build our homes again,” he said.
Mingora suffered little serious damage in the fighting but felt almost deserted on Tuesday, with only a few people seen wandering its narrow streets.
The government has yet to begin bringing people back to the town, preferring to return people to smaller towns first.
No one expects a speedy return of the tourists who used to flock to the scenic alpine valley for its cool mountains in the summer and skiing in the winter.
“The business has been ruined,” Zahid Hussain, president of a valley hotel association, told Reuters. “We’re bankrupt ... It’ll take three to five years for confidence to be restored.”
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.