Turnout low as schools reopen in Pakistan's Swat

Schools reopened in Pakistan's Swat valley but attendance was extremely low despite a fledgling truce between the government and insurgents, officials said.

world Updated: Feb 23, 2009 21:53 IST

Schools reopened in Pakistan's Swat valley on Monday but attendance was extremely low despite a fledgling truce between the government and insurgents, officials said.

"Our schools reopened today. The attendance was very poor. Only up to 10 percent attended," Swat education ministry official Sher Afzal told AFP.

Thousands of Islamist hardliners have spent nearly two years waging a terrifying campaign to enforce sharia law in Swat, beheading opponents, bombing girls' schools, outlawing entertainment and fighting government forces.

Last Monday, the government signed an agreement with a pro-Taliban cleric agreeing to enforce sharia in the valley in the hope of ending the insurgency.

Schools reopened a week earlier than scheduled after the winter holidays, but Afzal said many parents were unaware of the new term start date.

Syed Mohammad Javed, the top local government official, appealed for students to return to school, promising to accord them full security.

The government reopened all boys' schools on Monday but only the primary section up to the fourth grade in girls' schools, local officials said.

A spokesman said attendance at private schools -- all of which reopened -- was only 40 percent because of security fears.

"This is because of the recent (unstable) situation. Another reason is that many families are still frightened and thousands more left the valley because of the fighting," said private schools association spokesman Ziauddin Yusufzai.

Residents said girls attended classes veiled after militant leader Maulana Fazlullah announced on his illegal radio station that girls could take examinations, but only after covering themselves according to sharia.

Of the total 350,000 pupils registered in Swat, 250,000 are enrolled at government schools and 100,000 at private schools, said Afzal.

Militants have destroyed 191 schools in the valley, including 122 girls' schools, leaving 62,000 pupils without schools to go to, said Afzal.

There has been no co-education in Swat for several years and schools have created totally separate sections for boys and girls.

Militant spokesman Muslim Khan said girls could go to school provided they observe "purdah" -- the practice of total separation from men and boys.

"We have sent proposals to the government to rebuild the schools, which will cost around 800 million rupees (10 million dollars)," Afzal said.

First Published: Feb 23, 2009 18:34 IST