The militants that grabbed control of Pakistan's Swat Valley last fall have fled or melted away into the villages they came from. Now, as spring thaws the snow where troops have dug in through winter, the army says it has retaken a region that had slipped alarmingly from state control.
But bombings persist and Mullah Fazlullah, the hardline cleric behind the Taliban-style uprising, remains at large. He made his name by broadcasting his harsh brand of Islam from his own pirate FM radio station and used his thousands of armed followers to scare off the local police.
The military launched in November one of the biggest military operations since Pakistan threw its support behind the U.S.-led war against terrorism six years ago. On Monday the military ferried journalists by helicopter to three mountaintop positions to show the territory its more than 10,000-strong force has conquered.
"About 90 percent of the area has been cleared of the (militants), and only about 10 percent, pockets of resistance, are remaining. They have taken to the heights. Hopefully those areas will be taken back soon," said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
Fazlullah, the leader of a banned extremist group which sent reinforcements for the Taliban when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, won a large local following by pressing for the introduction of Islamic law in a poorly policed region. He took up arms in July, calling for holy war against the government.
With about 6,000 fighters, he seized a string of towns, scattering outgunned police and erected "Taliban station" signboards outside former police stations.
The militant takeover was a shocking reflection of how the government of President Pervez Musharraf had lost control of tracts of the conservative northwest. Swat, formerly known as a tourist retreat and dubbed the 'Switzerland of Asia' for its glorious Alpine scenery, became a no-go zone.
Officials accused Fazlullah's long-haired, bearded followers of imposing a reign of terror, shuttering schools for girls and beheading locals who opposed them. They suspect that the militants, apparently supported by some foreign fighters with suspected links to al-Qaida, were positioning themselves to block the Karakorum Highway that links Pakistan and China.
Maj. Gen. Nasser Janjua, commander of the military operation, said troops backed by helicopter gunships and artillery took control of key militant positions and chased the fleeing fighters, mostly locals. He claimed some shaved their beards and were nabbed as they tried to escape.
At one mosque, troops found concealed in the ceiling, a vast horde of chemicals, explosives and other equipment for making bombs. Elsewhere, they found and destroyed a Suzuki jeep packed full of explosives, apparently primed for a suicide attack.
In all, the operation has left 11 soldiers, 19 civilians and about 230 militants dead. But Janjua said the army had had little success in tracking the militant leaders, including Fazlullah, thought to be hiding somewhere in Swat or a tribal region bordering Afghanistan with 10 to 15 guards.
While residents, at least in the valley's main town of Mingora, say they now feel more secure, the threat of attack persists. Janjua said a nighttime curfew was still necessary because of fears of targeted killings by militants of government supporters.
At Uchrai Sar, where a 600-strong army deployment is based on a spectacular mountain ridge at the northwestern end of the Swat Valley, machine-gunners sit in dry stone bunkers scattered amid the pine forest. The camp lies near two of the four remaining "hotspots" in the valley, Beha and Piochar, where a hardcore of a few dozen militants are believed to have fled after they were dislodged in early January.
Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Nadir Hussain, said there had been no major attacks on security forces for the past two months in the area, and elections here passed off peacefully last week.
But in a reminder of the continuing threat, he pointed to a mountainside track where a roadside bomb hit a wedding party just two kilometers (1.2 miles) away on Friday, killing 12 people.
At another key mountaintop position, Shangla, where snows meters deep were melting in the spring sun, the local police chief recalled how in November, his 250 officers had escaped their 10 posts in the district for fear they would be "captured and slaughtered" by Fazlullah's men.
"The militants came in their hundreds. It was impossible for 20 men to defend the posts and the public," Mohammed Iqbal said. "We are trained for fighting crime, not guerrilla war and insurgency."
The police force has been doubled and given new equipment but officials say the battle against Fazlullah can only be won if his fighters can find neither sanctuary nor recruits among local villagers whom the army rely on for intelligence and want to mobilize in defense committees to protect themselves.
"They (locals) have not started fighting them (the militants) yet, but at least they have started resenting them, telling them, 'Please go away,'" Janjua said. "That's breaking the myth of the militants."