Asia Crisis

Pakistani Taliban force girls' schools to close

ISLAMABAD, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Taliban militants have banned female education in northwest Pakistan valley of Swat, depriving more than 40,000 girls of schooling while holding security forces at bay, officials said on Saturday.

"My daughters are sitting at home. Their future looks bleak because they will stay uneducated and I don't see any improvement in situation," said Mohammad Ayub, father of two girls whose school was blown up by militants in October.

There has been fighting in the valley for more than a year, but residents say the military is losing control, and government has already lost its writ to militants who aim to impose a severe form of Islamic law.

"The security forces are everywhere but security is deteriorating day by day. We don't know when will it normalise," Ibrahim Khan, a worried councillor said by telephone from Swat.

Swat is just one front the militants have opened up as violence has spread across North West Frontier Province from the adjoining semi-autonomous tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

The rapid destabilisation of almost the entire northwest has hardened Pakistani reservations over the cost of supporting the United States and other Western powers who have sent troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.

In one week last month, according to a senior military official, militants beheaded 13 people, including police, opposed to their way of life.

Many families have fled for the nearby cities of Peshawar and Mardan, while many police officers have either deserted or simply refused to serve.

"There is no government here," the senior military official said.


Blessed with gorgeous alpine scenery, Swat had been a popular tourist destination, despite deep-seated Islamic conservatism, among communities nestling among the mountains and lakes.

That changed dramatically in late 2007, when militant leader Mullah Fazlullah led a revolt just months after the army put down an uprising at Islamabad's Red Mosque, where clerics had also used militancy in a campaign to enforce Islamic law in the Pakistani capital.

The killing of scores of people, including women and children, during the army's siege of Red Mosque had ignited Islamist anger with the government and contributed to the wave of violence that has gripped Pakistan since then.

While the military has received reinforcements in Swat, so have the militants, as fighters fleeing military operations in tribal regions like Bajaur and Mohmand have joined Fazlullah's ranks.

Last month, the Taliban issued an ultimatum warning parents against sending their daughters to school, saying female education was "unIslamic".

The warning was reiterated by a close aide to Fazlullah in a message broadcast through an illegal FM radio station on Friday night.

Government schools have been shut down, and some 300 private schools due to reopen next month after the winter break will probably remain closed, a senior official said.

He said the militants have destroyed or damaged around 175 girls schools in recent months.

The only schools that have been unaffected by the Taliban ban are the small, poorly funded religious madrasas in mosques where young girls go to learn Koran.

Many parents have kept their daughters away from these schools too, out of fear that some Taliban may not approve.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has offered strong words, saying the closure of the schools was contrary to Islam, and warned the militants would pay for their anti-state actions.

"Nobody will be allowed to challenge the writ of the government," a statement issued from the prime minister's office quoted him as saying on Friday. (Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Valerie Lee) ((; +92 51 281 0017; Reuters Messaging: