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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 02:22 GMT 03:22 UK
Pakistan Taleban settles in
aamer
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, North Waziristan

The buildings of Miranshah show the signs of recent fighting

The BBC News website gets behind the scenes in an area where the Pakistani Taleban are digging in, despite the efforts of thousands of Pakistani troops.

Taleban fighters battling Pakistani security forces declared a unilateral ceasefire last week to accommodate a religious gathering near Miranshah, the largest town in North Waziristan.

The ceasefire began on 2 May to allow tens of thousands of devotees from all over the region to attend the annual ritual organised by the Pakistan-based Tablighi Jamaat.

The ceasefire ends on 11 May. What happens after that is anyone's guess.

But a day-long trip to Miranshah enabled us to get a glimpse of how the protagonists, as well as ordinary locals, are using the 10-day respite to prepare for the days beyond the current ceasefire.

Along the road from Bannu, the last town before North Waziristan, to Miranshah, Pakistani security forces could be seen fortifying their bunkers.

Paramilitary troops that would ordinarily not step out of their bunkers for fear of attacks from Taleban fighters were filling fresh sandbags to shore up their defences.

Easy smiles

In Mirali, the first major town on the road inside North Waziristan, Taleban fighters can be seen patrolling the main bazaar.

map
A young boy who barely looked 15 had eight ammunition magazines and four grenades dangling from his camouflage vest

Thanks to the ceasefire, they can walk past military checkpoints without triggering a confrontation.

The Taleban seem to be enjoying the ceasefire: the customary tension on their faces replaced with easy smiles.

The venue of the religious gathering, a place called Tablighi Markaz (preaching centre), is barely two kilometres past the main bazaar of Miranshah.

The last time outsiders had come into the area was a couple of weeks ago when the Pakistan army flew in a helicopter full of foreign journalists to demonstrate what it said was its control over the area.

Area commander Maj Gen Akram Sahi had told the foreign journalists that he was "hurt" to read in the media that the government had no writ over much of North Waziristan. He said his men were "everywhere".

It was difficult to spot Gen Sahi's men anywhere in or around the congregation near Miranshah but those who were "everywhere" were scores of Taleban fighters armed to their teeth.

Barely 200 metres from the venue of the gathering was a large blue tent where the main Taleban commanders were based.

Feared commander

I was allowed inside the tent where Taleban leader Haji Omar was sitting with several area commanders.

Boy selling posters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Posters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ally of al-Qaeda, for sale

He was just settling down after bidding farewell to Maulvi Sadiq Noor, one of the most feared Taleban commanders in North Waziristan.

Taleban fighters guarding the tent seemed to be carrying more than their own weight in arms and ammunition.

A young boy who barely looked 15 had eight ammunition magazines and four grenades dangling from his camouflage vest.

Because of his relatively frail frame, the young man was probably carrying half the ammunition compared with his comrades.

Most were carrying short range wireless sets with clip-on antennas.

"No, no interviews and no photographs," another fighter told me sternly. "Not during the ceasefire."

Sitting in the tent and surrounded by Taleban fighters, I couldn't help dreading a possible missile strike from a US predator.

But no such fears seemed to bother the Taleban.

They were apparently too confident of their ideological affinity with the tens of thousands of devotees they were guarding.

The Tablighi Jamaat has historically discouraged any kind of political symbols at its gatherings - but not now in North Waziristan.

Resentment

As the congregation concluded with a collective prayer for a Muslim renaissance, hundreds of devotees could be seen buying posters of Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The Miranshah bazaar
The Miranshah bazaar flourishes during the ceasefire

Mr Hekmatyar has recently declared his intent to team up with al-Qaeda to fight the US forces in Afghanistan.

It was difficult to find a place anywhere in Miranshah where one would not come across some measure of resentment against Pakistan security forces.

The main bazaar was bustling - the ceasefire means a temporary end to the long hours of curfew imposed by the security forces.

But it was not just the debris left behind at various places in the bazaar by government bombing that spoke of local resentment against the Musharraf government.

Locals were open and vocal with their views.

"It is no fun living here any more," a shopkeeper said.

"This bazaar would open with sunrise and shut at sunset. Now, people trudge in at around noon and leave after doing a few hours of business."

But aren't the Taleban equally to be blamed for the war-like situation, I ask.

"No. They are mujahideen waging a jihad against the Americans. They have no reason to disturb the peace in Waziristan if left to themselves," was the reply.

There was not a single newspaper available anywhere in Miranshah.

Angry at being portrayed as "terrorists and miscreants", the Taleban had recently set newspapers on fire in Mirali.

After that, no transporter was willing to bring newspapers into the tribal territory.

Not only that, most local journalists have given up journalism after failing to convince their publishers based in Peshawar or Bannu not to call the Taleban terrorists or miscreants.

Such banning of newspapers would have led to a fierce debate anywhere in the world.

It is barely mentioned in Miranshah, where people just seem happy that they can roam around freely once more.

It doesn't seem to matter that this freedom is only assured until 11 May when the ceasefire announced by the Taleban comes to an end.




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