Schools reopen in Swat valley

Schools reopened in Pakistan's Swat valley on Saturday, after nearly three months of being closed due to fighting between government forces and Taliban extremists.


AFP - Schools reopened in Pakistan's restive northwest Saturday after nearly three months of being closed due to fighting between the military and Taliban militants, officials said.

Pakistan has been returning families to the districts of Swat and Buner, where troops unleashed a massive summer offensive against the Taliban, with Islamabad claiming to have largely defeated the extremists.

"All schools in Malakand division are open from today," North West Frontier Province education minister Qazi Asad told AFP.

Asad said some 356 schools were damaged during the Taliban insurgency and the authorities were working on an emergency plan to rebuild or hire private buildings.

Meanwhile, tents have been provided to hold classes temporarily, he said.

In the northwest Swat valley's main town of Mingora, children in school uniform were seen going to school early Saturday.

An AFP reporter said children at Government High School Mingora received their lessons in tents, though the attendance was low, according to principal Fazal Aziz, as many students were under curfew.

"There is no electricity, water and other facilities and it is hard to keep students in tents for a long time in hot weather," Aziz said.

Khan Mohammad, a ninth grade student, said he was glad to return to lessons despite his school having been reduced to a pile of rubble.

"I am happy, at least I can study again even it is in a tent," Mohammad said, adding that he did not fear the Taliban and would fight them if they came back to Swat.

Sajjad Hameed, a seventh grade student, said he had already lost one academic year but hoped that things would be normal again.

An AFP reporter said police and military patrolled streets in Mingora and were deployed outside schools for security.

Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlullah masterminded a two-year uprising that ravaged the once idyllic Swat valley beloved by Western tourists.

His father-in-law, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, who was arrested Sunday on the outskirts of Peshawar, brokered a deal to put the three million residents of the wider northwest Malakand region under Islamic law.

Sharia law was the key demand of Fazlullah's uprising. An initial ceasefire accompanied the February 16 deal -- widely criticised in the West and at home -- but his group refused to disarm as demanded by the government.

When armed Taliban fighters advanced from Swat into the district of Buner, 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Islamabad, Pakistan launched a massive offensive under US pressure to crush Islamists considered a major threat.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said this month that the military had "eliminated" extremists.

But deadly skirmishes have continued, raising fears that the Taliban merely escaped into the mountains and regrouped, as they have done after previous offensives.

The United Nations warned Thursday that one million children could have their education interrupted in Pakistan, where conflict with the Taliban has damaged or turned schools into civilian shelters.

Around 600,000 out of an estimated 2.2 million people displaced by fighting between government troops and Taliban militia across the northwest have returned home, the UN says.

According to official sources, 187 schools have been destroyed while 318 schools are partially damaged. Most are schools for girls.

Eighth grader Rehmania Ali said her school was destroyed by the Taliban and now she was attending a different school in Mingora and was not comfortable with it.

"I miss my school so much. Taliban are the worst people in Swat, they destroyed my school and killed one of my cousins. I hate them," Ali told AFP.

UN officials said 1,167 schools out of 4,739 sheltering the displaced had already been vacated and that the government hoped to clear out the rest within two weeks.

More than 600,000 children enrolled in schools in Malakand have missed up to one school year due to conflict, the UN said.

In North West Frontier Province, only 22 percent of women and girls older than 15 are literate. Only seven percent of women and girls older than 10 are literate in the semi-autonomous tribal areas, the United Nations said.

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