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Community police raised to thwart Taliban

Pakistan has armed and appointed the first community police in Swat valley, hoping to prevent a Taliban resurgence and bolster security forces depleted by beheadings and mass desertions.

world Updated: Aug 05, 2009 08:15 IST

Pakistan has armed and appointed the first community police in Swat valley, hoping to prevent a Taliban resurgence and bolster security forces depleted by beheadings and mass desertions.

Calm -- however tense -- has returned to the once lovely mountain district, more than three months after Pakistan ordered the military to wage a blistering air and ground assault against Taliban fighters who effectively ruled Swat.

But civilian and military officials say peace depends on a properly trained and equipped police force, which, under an effective civil administration, must fill the security vacuum and prevent a return to insurgency.

New Swat police chief Sajid Khan Mohmand says the answer lies in his drive to recruit community police, particularly as hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians return to the valley, praying that peace will last.

"Community police have started to function at local police stations in the valley. They'll work alongside regular police and help them deal with militants effectively. We have already received 1,600 applications," he told AFP.

Regular police are not always from the neighbourhoods in which they work, so the community officers should help root out militants by telling them who's who and keeping their finger on the pulse.

"Police officials from other districts often find it difficult to identify local people. This will bridge the gap," said Mohmand.

They are chosen for their clean credentials and strong physique by tribal elders and will earn a monthly salary of 10,000 rupees (125 dollars).

If needed on patrol, community police are armed with Chinese-made assault rifles, 10 rounds of ammunition and a bullet-proof jacket, Mohmand said.

His ambitious plans to recruit nearly 4,000 -- should they come to fruition -- would significantly bolster the ranks of the police force, which he estimates at around 2,200 in Swat.

Pakistan claims the military has "eliminated" the extremists, two years after they rose up under radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah to enforce repressive Islamic laws and more than three months after launching a new offensive under US pressure.

Some 100,000 families among nearly two million people displaced by fighting between government forces and Taliban militants across the northwest have returned to their homes, according to the army.

Law enforcement staff were frontline victims of the thousands of Islamists who fought under Fazlullah.

Petrified by a campaign of intimidation and brutal beheadings, hundreds of police deserted as successive military operations failed to subdue the rebels.

Mohmand said at least 91 police officials were killed, mostly in bomb attacks and beheadings.

"One after another, at least 325 policemen resigned after taking out advertisements in various newspapers," said Swat's top administrative official Attif-ur-Rehman.

But it remains unclear how successful community policing will prove. So far, Mohmand says only 112 -- out of a target 3,725 -- are working, based in and around Mingora, the main town and most heavily secured part of Swat.

"The strength of the police force in Swat is still incomplete. Some police stations are not functioning, especially in Kabal and Matta," Mohmand admitted, referring to hardcore Taliban bastions in northern Swat.

Swat became the only district under government control that effectively fell into Taliban hands in Pakistan, which US President Barack Obama has put at the heart of the global fight against Islamist militants.

Pakistan says the Taliban is no longer a threat in Swat, but the authorities have failed to kill or capture either Fazlullah or any of his top lieutenants despite offering a 50-million-rupee (615,000-dollar) reward.

It's early days and the community men are wearing plain clothes. In the future, Mohmand wants them to wear black shalwar khamis with a dark-blue cap similar to uniforms worn by tribal police near the Afghan border areas.

Retired brigadier and security expert Mahmood Shah said community police were the best means to restore peace in Swat but stressed that success or failure would depend on their being properly trained in policing and insurgency.

"This is the best step to restore peace in Swat," he told AFP.

"The plan is initially for two years. Swat police were demoralised because of the operation. This induction will boost their morale. But the government should first train these people," he said.