KABAL, Pakistan (Reuters) - No tourists are hitting balls down the fairways of the once-peaceful Kabal golf course in Pakistan’s Swat valley these days.
Quite the contrary, the army has taken over the course as it battles Islamist militants who had tried to impose Taliban-style rule in the valley in North West Frontier Province.
A helicopter gunship is at the ready on one of the brown fairways while on another, big guns have been dug in, their long barrels pointing towards distant mountains.
“They have killed so many militants,” says Major Mohammad Shafique of his battery of six 130 mm artillery pieces that can fire a shell a distance of 33 km (20 miles).
The Swat valley, about five hours drive on mountain roads from Islamabad, had been a popular tourist destination with guides describing the sprawling and scenic golf course, built by a former princely ruler, as a golfer’s paradise.
But this year well-armed militants appeared and began to enforce their brand of hardline sharia law.
Led by a young, charismatic cleric called Fazlullah, the militants, many, like Fazlullah, believed to be veterans of Afghan fighting, attacked the police, closed girls schools and video shops and tried to destroy Buddhist ruins.
The police disappeared when challenged and soon the militants held sway over a string of small towns along the Swat river, including Kabal.
Last month, the army launched an offensive which the commander in charge said had succeeded in clearing the militants from most of the valley, sending them and Fazlullah running into remote valleys to the northwest.
“We’re striking them wherever they are,” Major General Nasser Janjua told a group of reporters in Mingora, the valley’s main town, on Saturday.
Janjua said his troops had killed 290 of the militants, who he said were supported by the Taliban and al Qaeda, and captured 143 in the offensive involving 20,000 troops. He said only six of his men had been killed.
“The threat is scattered, the threat is diluted,” he said at his sand-bagged headquarters set up in a government guest house.
President Pervez Musharraf cited rising militant violence when he declared a state of emergency on November 3.
But critics say Musharraf, who until last month was army chief, has been preoccupied with his bid to secure another term in office and failed to act quickly enough to stop the spread of militancy from remote Afghan border lands to Swat and even to Islamabad.
More than 100 people were killed in July when commandos stormed a radical mosque complex in the capital that was occupied by well-armed militants with links to Swat.
Janjua said Fazlullah had been able to whip up a following of about 5,000 people with his calls for strict Islamic law broadcast over his private FM radio station.
The cleric also paid young men 200 rupees ($3) a day to fight for him, Janjua said.
But most of Fazlullah’s recruits from the valley had melted back into the population since the offensive began, leaving him with a hard core of about 500 followers, including many foreigners, Janjua said. He said some Uzbeks were with Fazlullah but declined to say where others were from.
“Anywhere he goes I chase him using my artillery, using my helicopters,” he said. “His militancy has to be eroded.”
Janjua said it would take another three to four months to secure the valley: “I think he will try to regroup and strike me again, at least once.”
He said it would probably be a year before tourists ventured back to the valley, some, no doubt, hoping to get in a quiet round of golf.