Pakistan Army Said to Be Linked to Swat Killings
MINGORA, Pakistan - Two months after the Pakistani Army wrested control of the Swat Valley from Taliban militants, a new campaign of fear has taken hold, with scores, perhaps hundreds, of bodies dumped on the streets in what human rights advocates and local residents say is the work of the military.
In some cases, people may simply have been seeking revenge against the ruthless Taliban, in a society that tends to accept tit-for-tat reprisals, local politicians said.
But the scale of the retaliation, the similarities in the way that many of the victims have been tortured and the systematic nature of the deaths and disappearances in areas that the military firmly controls have led local residents, human rights workers and some Pakistani officials to conclude that the military has had a role in the campaign.
The Pakistani Army, which is supported by the United States and in the absence of effective political leadership is running much of Swat with an iron hand, has strenuously denied any involvement in the killings. The army has acknowledged that bodies have turned up, but its spokesmen assert that the killings are the result of civilians settling scores.
"There are no extrajudicial killings in our system," said Col. Akhtar Abbas, the army spokesman in Swat. "If something happens, we have a foolproof accountability system."
But neighbors of the victims and Swat residents say there is something more going on than revenge killings by civilians.
A senior politician from the region and a former interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, said he was worried about the army's involvement in the killings. "There have been reports of extrajudicial killings by the military that are of concern," he said. "This will not help bring peace."
Pakistan's military operations against the Taliban in Swat, begun in May under public pressure from the United States, has been hailed by Washington as a showcase effort of the army's newfound resolve to defeat the militants. The American ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, visited Mingora, the biggest town in Swat, last week, becoming the first senior American official to go to Swat since the army took over.
Now, concerns over the army's methods in the area threaten to further taint Washington's association with the military, cooperation that has been questioned in Congress and has been politically unpopular in Pakistan.
The number of killings suggests that the military is seeking to silence any enthusiasm for the Taliban and to settle accounts for heavy army casualties, said a senior provincial official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprimand by the army.
A sullen, uncertain atmosphere prevails in Mingora, where people interviewed last week in shops, homes and government institutions nervously complained of the arbitrary and unpredictable army rule.
Bodies, some with torture marks and some with limbs tied and a bullet in the neck or head, have been found on the roads of Mingora and in rural areas that were militant strongholds.
Reports on Sept. 1 in two national daily newspapers, Dawn and The News, said the bodies of 251 people had been found dumped in Swat.
The Human Rights Commission, a nongovernmental organization, disputed that all the victims had been killed by civilians, saying last month that there were credible reports of retaliatory killings by the military. It said that witnesses had seen mass graves and that in some cases, the bodies appeared to be those of militants.
The exact number of alleged killings was impossible to calculate because the presence of human rights monitors was limited by the authorities, the commission said. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which investigates illegal killings, was ordered by the military to leave Swat last month over matters unrelated to the killings, a senior Pakistani government official and the Red Cross said.
In one case, a family filed a petition with the army command last week describing the alleged killing of their son while in military custody. The army has initiated an inquiry, Colonel Abbas, the military spokesman in Swat, said.
The family of the man, Akhtar Ali, 28, said he was arrested at his electrical shop in Mingora in the early evening of Sept. 1 by a group of soldiers. Four days later, Mr. Ali's body was returned to the family home "tortured to death," a petition signed by his mother, Jehan Sultana, said.
Colonel Abbas said the army did not acknowledge that Akhtar Ali had been in military custody. If the inquiry found that a member of the army was guilty of the death, he would be disciplined, he said, "whatever the rank."
According to the family's account, family members went to army headquarters in Mingora the day after his arrest. "We were assured he would be released," the petition said. A day or two later they were told he would be home the next day.
Instead, at 6 a.m. on Sept. 5, security forces dropped his body on the doorstep, the statement said. "There was no place on his body not tortured," the petition said. Nails were "hammered into his body, and cigarettes burned into the skin."
The petition said Mr. Ali had no relationship with the Taliban.
In another alleged retaliatory killing, a man in his mid-20s, also called Akhtar Ali, was arrested in Mingora on July 22, shortly after the army declared the city safe.
His father, Aziz Ullah, said Mr. Ali had been taken away by soldiers near the family home. The next morning, Mr. Ali's body was found on the street not far from where he had been picked up, Mr. Ullah said.
"He had spoken in the mosque in favor of the Taliban, but he never picked up a gun," he said.
The Human Rights Commission report said residents also described mass graves in Kukarai village and in an area between the villages of Daulai and Shah Dheri. Witnesses said some of the bodies in the graves appeared to be those of Taliban militants, the report said. The army has rejected any suggestion that soldiers were involved.
The chief spokesman for the military, Gen. Athar Abbas, said the graves were the result of the Taliban killing their wounded as they retreated and dumping the bodies. The military was dealing with arrested militants through the courts and was seeking changes in the law of evidence to ensure more convictions, General Abbas said.
About 250 to 300 people told the commission of suspected retaliatory killings, a commission official said. In some cases, five people told the group about the same single episode, he said.
A well-to-do landlord, Sher Shah Khan, who had criticized what he termed the army's early reluctance to confront the militants, said he was not worried about the reports. "If the security services kill in the same manner as the Taliban killed, people have no problem."
But the principal of a girls' school, Ziauddin Yousafzi, said the military was making examples of the wrong people.
"The state cannot be barbaric," he said. "If people see the bodies of the top leaders of the Taliban rather than the body of people like Akhtar Ali, they will be jubilant."