By Nadeem Sarwar and Aqeel Yousafzai
(NSI News Source Info) Peshawar - February 6, 2009: Peuchar is a little-known place high up in restive Swat Valley in Pakistan's part of the Koh Hindu Kush range, but its rugged mountain terrain and dense pine forests make it a perfect hiding place for local Taliban fighters and their occasional Al Qaeda visitors. Maulana Fazlullah, a radical cleric whose followers have waged a war for the enforcement of Taliban rule, controls almost the entire Swat district from this remote area, located at an altitude of more than 8,500 metres, via aides issuing instruction to the helpless local population through a pirated radio frequency.
Some locals even say that Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden's 16-year-old son, Hamza bin Laden, was seen here late last year with around a dozen of his guards.
Though the claim could not be confirmed independently, there are strong indications that Al Qaeda has assisted local militants to run a training camp near Peuchar village - otherwise known for its wild, juicy apples - for several years.
"We have a lot of evidence that hundreds of foreign and local militants are present in Peuchar camp. They plan operations there and dispatch suicide bombers for attacks," said Ayub Khan Ashari, provincial minister for science and technology in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), of which Peshawar is the capital.
"Since 2005 I have informed the military and civilian officials in NWFP that militant activities at Peuchar are increasing and that they should do something about it. But no one took me seriously," he said.
According to locals and some visitors, there are two small clearings in the pine forests just a few hundred metres up from the village, each of the size of a football field, where militants train their fighters and suicide bombers for attacks on Pakistani security forces and political leaders or US-led international forces in Afghanistan.
Not far from there are two big natural caves that were modified into a cave complex like Tora Bora in Afghanistan, where bin Laden hid before reportedly later escaping to north-western Pakistan in 2002.
"With some construction work the militants have improved ventilation in the caves which are so big that scores of people, supplies and vehicles can be concealed there," said a local who recently fled the area.
According to intelligence sources, local residents and militant supporters, the camps were initially set up between 1988 and 1990 mainly by Pakistani mujahideen (holy warriors) who returned from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and prepared to start Pakistan's proxy war in the Indian part of the disputed Kashmir region.
Al Qaeda operative Abu Abdullah, the co-founder of the Peuchar camp, initially provided technical assistance to establish the terrorist infrastructure. He died in the Afghan province of Khost in 1991.
"Some mujahideen who were trained here were dispatched to Kashmir through the Shangla and Mansehra areas," said Qari Farmanullah, a local member of militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad.
According to Farmanullah, who claims to have visited the camp several times, dozens of militants involved in an Islamic insurgency in China's southern province of Xinjang also trained in Peuchar.
When the 2001 US invasion turned Afghanistan into an unsafe place for Al Qaeda, at least some of its fighters moved to Peuchar and used the terrorist infrastructure to train their operatives from Central Asia, Sudan, Egypt, Somalia and Bangladesh.Among the known Al Qaeda visitors was Khalid al-Suleman, a Sudanese operative who died in a missile attack in South Waziristan in 2007.
The camp was later taken over by Fazlullah who launched an Islamic rebellion against the Pakistani government in late 2007 and joined the local Taliban movement. He appointed Ibn Amin, a hard-headed militant from Swat, as the chief trainer.
Amin, in his late 30s, walks around the camp dressed in a Muslim shroud, a white un-sewn sheet, which symbolises his desire for so-called martyrdom.
Peuchar seems to be ideal for Al Qaeda because of its favourable geography. It is outside Pakistan's tribal region where US-led forces have focussed their attention since 2001 to hunt down Al Qaeda's leadership.
The militants, believed to number between 400 and 600, can use the difficult terrain and the forests to turn the area into a killing field for Pakistani foot soldiers, a fact which might have kept government forces away from Peuchar.
Ashari, who is on Fazlullah's hit list, believes the government was not serious in eliminating the terrorist camp.
"After becoming a minister last year, I provided the details of the camp even to President Asif Ali Zardari, the NWFP governor and the corps commander in Peshawar. We were assured that effective action will be taken to close the camp but the administrative and operational structure of the camp still stands intact and active."
A military spokesman in Swat admitted that militant activities at Peuchar have intensified because of years of negligence, but warned that a battle in that area could be very bloody.
"The miscreants have made the local population hostage and a full-force military action might result in huge collateral damage. To avoid this we hit the selective targets and such actions have killed numerous terrorists," he added.
In October, when a Chinese engineer escaped from Peuchar after one-and-a-half months of Taliban captivity, Pakistani jets and artillery pounded the place, leaving dozens of militants dead.
The strike forced Hamza bin Laden to leave Peuchar immediately and move to possibly Kunar or Nooristan provinces, said a local source whose claim could not be confirmed.