The Pakistani Taliban have taken control of mines producing precious lapis lazuli stones in the insurgency-hit Swat valley and started operating them on their own.
The Taliban have confirmed that they took control of the mines two months ago when they arrived in the hilly area of Fiza Ghat, a resort on the outskirts of Mingora, the main city in Swat valley.
The militants have appointed hundreds of local labourers to work round the clock to excavate lapis lazuli stones as authorities in the area had left the mines, BBC Urdu reported on Wednesday on its website.
One-third of the income from the mines is taken by the Taliban while the rest is offered to the labourers, a Taliban militant said. The Taliban have deployed senior commanders at several mines to monitor the excavation of stones.
A Taliban commander said the mines were in a "working condition" when Swat was ruled by a prince in the 1960s but the government had always argued they were being operated at a loss and the business had not been producing any profits.
Lapis lazuli stones of international standard have been mined in Swat since they were first discovered in 1962, when the valley was an independent state ruled by a prince called a 'Wali'. Swat joined Pakistan in 1969. The mines are believed to be spread over an area of about six kilometres.
A Taliban commander claimed all income from the mines was being transferred into the pockets of corrupt officers and influential people in Swat. After the Taliban took control of the mines, the situation had changed and local residents are now benefiting from the mines, he claimed.
The Taliban did not allow reporters to take photographs of the mines and labourers. The workers are given cards on which rules for working in the mines are written in the local Pashto language. They are not allowed to work during the time of prayers.
The workers have also been warned they would be severely punished if they steal any stones. The workers are searched while entering and leaving the mines.
Three to four miners make up a group and income from any precious stone found by them is divided among them equally after the Taliban retain one-third of the proceeds. A miner said he can earn up to Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a week in the mines.
Another worker said that he and three colleagues started work a few weeks ago and had found one stone within a week. This was enough for meeting their daily requirements, he said.