ZEESHAN HAIDER IN PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN
A BEAUTY spot known as "Pakistan's Switzerland" has become the latest focus for militant Islamist uprisings challenging the president, Pervez Musharraf, across the country's volatile north-west.
Provoked by a suicide bombing and public beheadings in the Swat region, security forces responded with helicopter gunships and artillery against fighters led by a 32-year-old cleric who has been urging jihad on the radio and is known for riding around on a white horse gathering donations for his cause.
The result - about 180 people have been killed in the conflict in the past week and thousands of families have fled a valley that, in years past, had been a tourist destination.
The trouble in Swat comes on top of the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad and fighting with militants in Waziristan, and adds to the pressures on General Musharraf. There are rumours that he might declare emergency powers and call off elections meant to turn Pakistan into a civilian-led democracy.
In the four months since his troops stormed the Red Mosque to crush a Taleban-style movement and a ceasefire with Waziristan's militants broke down, close to 800 people have been killed in violence.
"Uprisings are always crushed. There should be zero tolerance for them," Mahmood Shah, a former security chief of Pakistani tribal areas, said. "The government should isolate the hardcore militants and box them in. It's the only solution. There is no need to appease them."
There have been at least 23 suicide attacks, including one last month that killed 139 people at a rally to mark the return from eight years of self-imposed exile of former premier Benazir Bhutto. Another killed seven people a few hundred yards from Gen Musharraf's army residence in Rawalpindi on Tuesday.
The president sent the army into Swat, but it is the paramilitary Frontier Corps which has led the fight against Maulana Fazlullah's armed movement TNSM , which wants to impose strict Islamic law in the region.
"Fazlullah is becoming a new icon for the militants after Abdul Rashid Ghazi," a senior intelligence official said, referring to the militant cleric who was killed in the army assault on the Red Mosque in July.
Fazlullah has used an FM radio station known as "Mullah Radio" to call men to arms to avenge the slaying of Ghazi and his followers. He now has hundreds, possibly thousands, of fighters under his command.
Not many sightseers go to Swat these days for its crystal blue lakes, verdant alpine meadows and snow-capped peaks. But it sometimes gets a mention from security analysts playing the perennial guessing game: where is Osama bin Laden?
The al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding somewhere in the Pashtun tribal belt straddling the Pakistan-Afghan border. They released audio and video tapes in September calling on mujahideen to avenge the slaughter of comrades in the Red Mosque by intensifying attacks on Gen Musharraf and his security forces.
Security officials believe some Arab and Uzbek militants who fled tribal areas have taken sanctuary with Fazlullah's fighters and were involved in the Swat uprising. They say the foreigners were responsible for beheading six paramilitaries last week.
Swat is at the other end of the tribal region from Waziristan, at the south-west of the Pashtun tribal belt. While it is not one of Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal agencies, the Swatis, as locals are known, are tribal.
Militancy took roots in Swat in the 1980s, when madrassas sprouted across North West Frontier Province, covertly funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, to drive the Soviet Union out Afghanistan. By the 1990s, the same madrassas were producing Taleban fighters and radical Islamists.
Fazlullah's father-in-law, Sufi Mohammad, founded TNSM and led an uprising in Swat in 1994 to make sharia the law of the land. The authorities later set up Islamic courts to appease the Islamists, a move critics say emboldened the radicals. When US-led forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, Sufi Mohammad sent thousands of fighters over the border in a futile attempt to save the Taleban militia from defeat.
MISSILE STRIKE NEAR SCHOOL LINKED TO BIN LADEN
PAKISTANI villagers said a missile strike hit houses near a madrassa founded by an old friend of Osama bin Laden's yesterday, killing at least five people.
They said a drone aircraft carried out the attack, and the United States has carried out such operations in the past - Pakistan does not have drones in its armoury.
"A drone was flying very low and fired the missile. It destroyed three houses," one villager said. Others corroborated his account.
The Pentagon issued a swift denial the US military had conducted a strike, but a spokesman said he could not speak for US intelligence agencies that also operate the pilotless aircraft.
A Pakistani military spokesman said he had heard there had been an explosion in a house but there had been no action by Pakistani forces.
The madrassa, or religious school, near Miranshah, the main town in the Waziristan tribal region, was founded by veteran mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose ties to bin Laden go back to the 1980s jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. There were unconfirmed reports earlier this year that the ageing Haqqani had died, but his son, Sirajuddin, has emerged as a major militant figure in his place.