Taliban militants who have seized swathes of North West Frontier Province in Pakistan have inflicted a reign of terror on villagers, landowners and the police, using kidnapping, looting, pillaging and murder to impose their will.
Yesterday, as Pakistani forces stepped up their campaign to retake territory in the districts of Buner, Dir and Swat, it emerged that in one Taliban-controlled village, Pir Baba in Buner, the militants were holding 2,000 people as human shields in case the army attacked.
Elsewhere the Taliban appeared to be relying on kidnapping to extort funds and intimidate the population. Many of their victims have been members of rich families.
“Kidnapping has become routine in our village. Armed Taliban were picking up people and then demanding a huge ransom for their release,” said an elderly refugee now living with his family in a tent in Timergara, a town in Dir.
Police officers were also being abducted or killed. Last Thursday militants kidnapped a local officer and 11 guards in Upper Dir, an area that had been peaceful. In Mingora, the largest city in Swat, three policemen were abducted by militants.
On a two-day journey through the remote valleys in Buner, Dir and Swat, I discovered that many of the 90,000 refugees fleeing the conflict welcomed the military action despite their anger at being forced to leave their homes and farms.
President Asif Ali Zardari, who will meet Barack Obama at the White House this week, launched Operation Black Thunder last Sunday with the aim of rolling back the Taliban advance.
Many regard it as a last throw of the dice by a desperately weak president.
General David Petraeus, the commander of US Central Command, privately told officials that the next two weeks could determine whether the Pakistani government survived.