Taliban threats close Pakistan schools

Sunday, January 18, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- In a dark echo of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, violent religious extremists in Pakistan are moving to restrict girls' education as they seek to impose a draconian version of Islamic law on a beleaguered population.

In a northern valley where Taliban guerrillas have been waging a bloody war against security forces for more than a year, hard-liners have blown up or burned down some 170 schools, most of them for girls. Then in December, a warning by militants in a pirate radio broadcast: All schools for girls should close by Jan. 15.

This week, an association representing 400 private schools for boys and girls in the Swat valley said they would all remain closed after the winter break because of the threat.

Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan in the 1990s banned education for girls and forced most working women to return to their homes.

Since their 2001 ouster, the hardline Islamist movement's followers have been blamed for scores of arson attacks on schools in Afghanistan, many of them built with Western aid. An acid attack by Taliban insurgents last year maimed several girls.

The rise of Taliban groups in neighboring Pakistan has brought similar violence, especially in Swat, a relatively progressive area that until recently drew tourists from across Pakistan with its fine Alpine scenery.

The valley lies close to, but outside, Pakistan's tribally governed belt along the Afghan border where the West worries that al-Qaida leaders have found refuge.

Residents complain that the local administration, including the police force, has collapsed over recent months as officials and lawmakers flee in fear. Relief workers say thousands of residents also have moved out of militant-held areas.

Those who remain find themselves with little choice but to comply with the demands of the militants, who have exploited long-nurtured local grievances with Pakistan's snail-paced justice system.

Muslim Khan, the militants' spokesman, said they would not allow any girls' schools to operate until the army withdraws from the valley and Islamic law is imposed.

"These schools are being run under a system introduced by the British and promote obscenity and vulgarity in society," Khan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Khan said a system of girls education would be developed in line with the teaching of Islam.

All schools in the Swat valley, including some 1,600 government-run establishments with a quarter-million students, are closed for the winter vacation until the end of February.

Provincial education minister Sardar Hussain Babek said the government was trying to improve security by then so that they could reopen.

"If some people have grudges or complaints with the government they should not target the students and they should not snatch the right of education from them," he said.

But another senior provincial official, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, suggested the schools issue was secondary.

"People are being killed, they are being hanged there, so why are we talking about schools? Are schools open in Gaza?" Bilour said.

Administrators and teachers are scared.

Yousufzai worried that militants might even be more likely to target schools provided with security guards, putting students and teachers in greater peril.

"We appeal to both (militants and the government) to spare education and health institutions in this crisis," said Yousufzai.

Jahan Ara, a teacher in Swat's main town of Mingora, said she had taught in a private school for the last four years since her father died but had decided to quit.

"This job was enabling me to feed my widowed mother and three sisters but now I cannot take the risk," she said.

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