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With US help, miners dig in at former Taliban base

Dusty and exhausted, the miners emerge from tunnels, blinking in the sunlight of this formerly Taliban-controlled valley. They carefully drop their emeralds into a hole in a padlocked wooden box and trudge home to their villages down below.

world Updated: Jun 21, 2010 12:11 IST

Dusty and exhausted, the miners emerge from tunnels, blinking in the sunlight of this formerly Taliban-controlled valley. They carefully drop their emeralds into a hole in a padlocked wooden box and trudge home to their villages down below.

A year after the Pakistani army ousted the militants from the Swat Valley, emerald miners again work in this mountaintop mine once used by insurgents as a base-a sign of progress in a region struggling to recover from conflict.

Mining-for gems, marble, granite, chromite and coal-is one of the only industries, save for smuggling, in many parts of the northwest. The United States is helping the industry as part of a $7.5 billion package to Pakistan that it hopes will create jobs, dry up support for extremism and stop militants from returning.

"It is a big job, but a good job. A rich job!" said Hikmat Ullah, gesturing toward what he says are acres of untapped reserves beneath the rocky, arid soil. "100 meters down the hill, 100 meters up the hill, east and west. There are veins going everywhere."

Pakistan has at least $500 billion in untapped mineral deposits, according to the country's geological survey, though some estimates put the figure twice as high as that. Last week, the US announced unexploited reserves in neighboring Afghanistan were worth close to $1 trillion.

The key in both Pakistan and Afghanistan will be to overcome the difficulties of developing industry in the region, despite U.S. funding. Production at Shamozai is threatened because of an ownership dispute that alleges Ullah mined hand-in-hand with the militants when they were in control, handing them over a chunk of the proceeds. Ullah denied the charges.

Swat's two other emerald mines remain closed amid allegations of chronic corruption and mismanagement that miners and gem traders say have dogged the industry since the early 1980s. Indeed, many say it was in better shape when the Taliban were in control of the valley.

At Shamozai, Ullah employs around 30 men who work tunnels that zigzag some 60 feet (18 meters) into the mountain, following the emerald deposits wherever nature has left them. At the face, one man wields a pneumatic pick, while his partner sifts through the debris, trained eyes scanning for a flash of green in the light of his headtorch.

They earn more than $100 a month, a good salary in rural Pakistan.

Aside from emeralds, gems locked away in Pakistani mountains include pink and golden topaz, aquamarine and many others. Due to a lack of skilled labor, most Pakistan stones are exported to Bangkok or Amsterdam, where teams of cutters polish and make them into much more valuable gems.

A major focus of the US aid is developing that side of the industry in Pakistan. It has trained dozens of men and women from the tribal regions in cutting and polishing. It is also establishing a center for gem certification in Peshawar, the main northwestern town, which would dramatically increase the value of the product. "It's possible to make a decent industry, but there are issues with the market," said Brendan Laurs, an expert with the Gemological Institute of America who has studied Pakistan's gem deposits. "Foreign buyers will need to feel comfortable about visiting Pakistan."

On the other side of the valley in Buner, a team of men are using Italian wire saws to cleave from a quarry what few in the region have ever seen: a perfectly-cut block of marble the size of a small car, its straight edges standing out against a backdrop of shattered and jagged rock.

Almost all quarries in northwest Pakistan use explosives to extract the marble-a wasteful, dangerous technique used in few other places because it produces irregularly-shaped stones that international buyers will not touch.

Taimur Khan spends around $7,000 monthly of his own money renting equipment from a Pakistani public-private partnership established with U.S. funds and expertise. Like many in the valley, he is having trouble adapting, but believes that within five years the explosives will be obsolete-and profits 150 percent higher.

"At the moment, I'm running a loss, but in the near future I am confident it will work out," said Khan, who made two trips to Italy courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer to observe how things are done in the marble center of the world.

In August, the U.S. will spend more than $2 million on new machinery available to rent for quarry owners in Mohmand and Bajur tribal regions, which are especially rich in quality marble and are home to some 500 quarries and 300 processing factories. The army has conducted operations against the Taliban in both regions since 2008 and say both are now cleared.

Taliban militants gradually increased their influence in Swat starting in 2007 and were in effective control of the scenic valley by 2009. After a peace deal in February that year, they moved into Buner, prompting the state into ordering the offensive. The insurgents occupied all of Swat's mines, drawn to their strategic heights as well as the precious stones.

At the largest mine on the outskirts of the main town of Mingora, the militants allowed the locals to mine so long as they shared the proceeds with them. After decades of mismanagement, the quick and transparent method was welcomed by many miners and dealers. "When the people finished work for the day they split up the rocks, there and then. They said 'this is your share, and this is my share'," said emerald dealer Nurul Huda. "The government should adopt this model."

It is now deserted save for goats and the occasional soldier, frustrating locals who want to work.

"Wherever I point my finger at this mine, I guarantee you results," said Abdul Ghaffar, who has worked the seams for more than 20 years. "I am prepared to repay twice your investment if that is not the case."

At Shamozai, signs of militant occupation and the military campaign are still evident.

The fighters left graffiti saying "Long Live the Taliban" on small mosque at the complex. The depression on a bluff with views up and down the valley marks where miners and the army say an anti-craft gun was positioned also remains. Bullet holes stud the few buildings on the site and large craters have opened up by bombs dropped by Pakistani aircraft.

Ullah said that when the militants showed up one night after driving up the long road that hugs the mountainside he and the other miners did as they were ordered and fled. "How dare we say no to them? The next morning, before breakfast, we left," he said. That version of events is disputed by at least one other miner on the site and Mohammad Rasul, who claims to be owed royalties by Ullah for mining on his section of the mountain. Both men accuse him of working for several months with the Taliban.

"The Taliban are the enemy of the country, and he was working hand in glove with them," said Rasul, who also heads the region's gem mining association.

The charge of collaboration with the Taliban is included in a lawsuit filed by Rasul.

Mining officials in Mingora declined to comment on those allegations and denied corruption within the industry. But they could not say when mining would resume at Swat's other two mines. They said tenders had been issued, but that a suitable company had not been found.