GHAR-I-HIRA CAMP, Pakistan – Deep in the tunnel, a small wooden cabinet is the only piece of furniture, a syringe still in its plastic wrapper and a disposable razor scattered on the shelves. A pair of sky-blue pants lies on the rocky ground by the remnants of a threadbare sleeping mat.
“This was their safest haven,” said Waseem Shafique, a Pakistani army major whose men stumbled onto this hand-hewn cave and the militant camp around it this month. “Nothing can touch them in here, it is safe from shelling, they cannot be seen — everything.”
The hillside camp offers rare insight into conditions, tools and tactics being used by insurgents against government troops in the picturesque, northwestern Swat Valley for about the past two years.
It may also be a foreboding sign of the much tougher fight to come as the military moves into the grotto- and tunnel-ridden tribal region on the Afghan border, the scene of the next anti-Taliban operation and where battle-hardened militants have had much longer to dig in.
In another worrying sign, commanders and experts warn that some of the most formidable Taliban leaders and fighters who have escaped from Swat may be heading for the tribal zone of South Waziristan.
The Obama administration is an enthusiastic supporter of Pakistan’s apparent determination to confront the militants this time, after years of striking peace deals that have collapsed and launching offensives that have failed to complete the job.
Less than three months after the Taliban advanced from Swat to a neighboring area just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, the army now says it has the militants on the run, helped by tips from residents fed up with their brutality.
The military took a small media group on Saturday to view the Ghar-i-Hira camp, a facility spread over three tiers cut into a pine-forested hillside in the upper reaches of the Swat Valley.
A simple tunnel system formed the militants’ living quarters — a 120-foot-deep corridor chipped into the rock hillside, with two antechambers branching off in a rough T-shape. Shreds of clothes lay scattered on the ground along with the scraps of sleeping mats. The battered cabinet leaned precariously, charred by a kerosene fire set in the tunnel by troops.
Outside, soldiers displayed items found in the tunnel and a smaller cave they said was an ammunition store: a machine gun and ammo belts, a pistol, mortar rounds, and an empty box of rocket-propelled grenades stamped “government explosive” in English. The government was not identified, and soldiers said they could not identify the box as Pakistani or otherwise.
There were bags of gunpowder, two small pipe bombs, a half-dozen alarm clocks and television remote controls — the makings of improvised explosive devices that are often used to attack security forces convoys in Pakistan’s northwest. Also on hand was a book in Urdu the soldiers said was about the glory of jihad, or holy struggle.
In the kitchen area nearby, a pot of sweetened rice sat rotting — evidence of the soldiers’ account that the camp was discovered on June 11 as the militants were preparing breakfast. The militants spotted a patrol on a nearby ridge and dropped what they were doing to open fire.
In the 13-hour gunbattle that followed, seven soldiers and about 40 militants were killed and about the same number escaped along narrow paths through the pine forest, Shafique said.
Elsewhere in the camp was a makeshift mosque, a hole-ridden metal plate hanging from a tree used for target practice, and an area strewn with coils of barbed wire and wooden structures soldiers said were used for training.
Access to the region has been strictly controlled, and no independent confirmation of the military’s account of the battle was available.
Maj. Gen. Sajjad Ghani, the Swat offensive’s northern commander, said foreigners were among the roughly 100 fighters at the camp, and that some were killed.
Officials showed journalists a grainy photograph of several corpses, but their ethnicity was not discernible. Ghani said it was easy to spot foreigners by their different appearance from Pakistanis, and named Afghans, Chechens, Uzbeks and Tajiks as among those believed to be in the camp.
“These are the hard-core, the trainers,” Ghani said. “They are like guerrillas. They move around from place to place.”
After almost two months of fighting, the military says the Taliban has been cleared out of almost all the Swat Valley and surrounding regions. Nearly 1,600 militants and about 100 soldiers have been killed, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Monday.
Pressed at a media briefing whether any of the top militant leaders have been captured or killed, Abbas said the military has reports that some leaders may have been wounded, or killed and quickly buried. But there is no confirmation, he said.
Ghani said the military has cleared insurgents from 95 percent of the roughly 4,000 square miles of territory for which he is responsible, but he estimated that up to 3,000 militants may remain. The vast bulk of these, he said, are local men either paid or forced to join the Taliban and who will return to peaceful lives once the government’s authority is restored.
The whereabouts of a hard-core group of up to 500 are unknown.
“Some of them might have been incapacitated or seriously injured; however, as of now there are no bodies to show,” Ghani told The Associated Press. “The possibility is they are going to Waziristan and also to Afghanistan — they are the two relief zones that I see.”
The leaders may want to go into hiding in Waziristan to reorganize, he said. They may not get that chance.
South Waziristan, a 4,400-square-mile chunk of Pakistan along the Afghan border, has for a week been softened up with airstrikes and artillery fire as the military prepares its next major anti-Taliban operation.
The government says it is about to go after Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in his South Waziristan base. Authorities blame Mehsud for suicide bombings that have killed more than 100 people in the past two months and for masterminding last year’s assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto as part of an insurgency to destabilize the government.
A hardscrabble, mountainous area where well-armed tribes hold sway and the government’s influence is minimal, South Waziristan is a possible hiding place of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
Since militants began seeking it out as a safe haven after the 2001 U.S.-backed invasion of Afghanistan, the region is said to have become riddled with militant bolt-holes including tunnels and concrete bunkers. It is used as a base for militants operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Asad Munir, a former intelligence chief with responsibility for the tribal zone, said fighters there would welcome fellow militants from Swat who volunteer for a fresh battle in South Waziristan.
“Foot soldiers, the remnants from the Taliban side in Swat, they would be coming to South Waziristan to reinforce Baitullah’s forces,” he said. “Fighters would also be coming from the Afghan side.”
Ghani said there was only one way to deal with the most determined fighters.
“The hard-core, there is only one thing. You have to kill them,” he said. “They are like a mad dog, and what can you do with a mad dog? You must kill it.”