SULTANWAS, Pakistan - Village leaders in a former Taliban stronghold are rebuilding their own militia to protect the area from militants holding out in nearby hills after fleeing the Pakistani army's offensive last spring.

The military operation in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas is winding down, but sporadic fighting persists - a sign that the Taliban has not given up. Locals say Taliban fighters are hiding in the hills outside Sultanwas, a village pulverized by air strikes and tanks during Pakistan's offensive.

So villagers are leaving nothing to chance: They have reorganized their own militia and say they are talking to nearby villages to join forces.

Pakistan's authorities say such militias, known as lashkars, can prevent the Taliban from rebounding in the strategic area north of the capital. The groups have been compared to Iraq's Awakening Councils, which helped U.S. forces turn the tide against al-Qaida there.

"The army is protecting the main road, and we are protecting the village," said one of the militiamen, Abdul Rauf, 43.

The concept is an old one in Pakistan, where lashkars have augmented security in the lawless tribal belt along the Afghan border. But they have not been a feature of the more peaceful districts such as Buner, which includes Sultanwas, and in the nearby Swat Valley.

Nevertheless, authorities have encouraged the local militias.

They are "a great assistance, support to the government agencies, to law enforcement," said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.

Sultanwas was the first village in the area to form its own defence force against the Taliban in April, the army and residents say. But the fighters withdrew after receiving assurances from a local administrator that the militants would not enter. The administrator was alleged to have been a Taliban sympathizer.

The village soon became one of the militants' southernmost strongholds as the Taliban swept south from Swat. The Taliban later lost control of Sultanwas in the spring offensive by the army.

With the militants gone, militiamen are now organizing patrols and setting up positions.

"We are sure if the Taliban come back, we will fight," said Rauf.

Thirty members of the Sultanwas lashkar recently teamed up with security forces in a clearance operation in the area.

A firefight Wednesday between militants and a lashkar in the nearby Dir district, supported by paramilitary troops, left at least four militants dead, the military said.

Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, commander of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, said the militias play an important role because they allow the army to operate elsewhere instead of being tied down guarding villages.

More importantly, they can identify local militants whom outsiders might not recognize.

"The lashkars are the right type of people who control the markets, control the bus stands and can see who's coming and who's going out," Khan said.

But critics say the militias could become a threat without proper supervision.

"It is quite possible that these armed groups, once they don't have the militants to fight, ... will become a power in their own substance and start oppressing the people of that area," political and defence analyst Ikram Sehgal warned.

There are also doubts as to how effective the often ramshackle forces - armed with their own, often aging, weapons - can be when faced with a sustained assault by the much better trained and armed Taliban.

In Sultanwas, the militia currently numbers about 150 fighters, including a 13-year-old boy and a 65-year-old man. The group's arsenal on display recently consisted of little more than the ubiquitous Kalashnikov rifles and a couple of light machine-guns - and a pistol patented in Spain in 1928.

But the fighters themselves appear unperturbed.

"We are ready for self-defence. (The Taliban) can attack at any time, maybe at night, maybe during the day. Maybe they will send a suicide bomber," said Eftikhar Ahmad, 26. "We are living a risky life, but we have no other way. So we accept the Taliban's challenge."