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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 01:54 GMT 02:54 UK
Vice-and-virtue battle in Khyber valley

By Haroon Rashid
BBC correspondent in Pakistan's Khyber Agency

Tribesmen opposed to Haji Namdar
Tribesmen gather in opposition to tribal chief Haji Namdar
Tribesmen in a near-inaccessible Pakistani valley have risen up against a chief who has imposed Taleban-style laws.

After returning from Saudi Arabia to the Tirah valley in Pakistan's Khyber Agency, tribal chief Haji Namdar set about enforcing laws echoing the Ministry for the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue in Taleban-run Afghanistan.

Like the Taleban's Mullah Mohammad Omar, 35-year-old Haji Namdar's word was considered final.

But after operating fairly discreetly since last November, his organisation has now split into two factions, with some tribal chiefs accusing him of "religious terrorism".

Tide of support

Initially, the valley's mainly Afridi tribes people welcomed the organisation's commitment to curbing lawlessness.

It offered an alternative to the Khyber Agency's official administration - a political agent endorsed by the government - which many regarded as incompetent.

But the tide of popular support slowly disappeared.

As one tribesman put it: "The organisation is effectively mirroring what the Taleban did in Afghanistan. It won public support by addressing the security deficit and then it shifted focus to introducing a more rigid form of Islam."

Former federal minister and a local tribal chief, Malik Waris Khan, told the BBC: "Initially, it did some laudable deeds like settling old tribal disputes. But then it started losing direction.

"People grew weary of it because of the use of violence to make people pray."

Volunteers hit men for not covering their heads or not growing beards in what is deemed the proper style and length.

Music was banned, as was television. Every worshipper had to sign the mosque's register to verify they had offered prayers.

Haji Malik Zareef (L) and Haji Namdar
Haji Malik Zareef (L) says Haji Namdar is a "religious terrorist"
Absenteeism from communal prayers incurred a fine of 500 rupees ($8.50).

Haji Namdar's opponents say he ran three private jails with names such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to punish those who defied his orders.

Last December it set up an illegal FM radio station to broadcast strict interpretations of shariah law.

Jan Mohammad, a member of the Bar Kambarkhel tribe, said: "Everyone is obliged to adhere to them. Any show of reservation or questioning is immediately branded as defiance, a crime which ran the risk of severe punishment."

The radio station was halted on government orders, but the seeds of discord had been sown.

A group led by tribal chief, Haji Malik Zareef, rebelled against Haji Namdar.

The factions have been involved in fierce clashes and a number of lives have been lost.

Haji Malik Zareef says: "Haji Namdar had resorted to religious terrorism. He started doing things that were completely unacceptable to the tribes. People were beaten up with batons like animals."

'Hue and cry'

In a nearby camp, hundreds of followers of Haji Namdar are sitting in a small mosque built with donations from Qatar.

A car of the Haji Namdar faction
Haji Namdar's supporters say he brings peace and security
A few vehicles fly white, Taleban-style flags.

Haji Namdar was not to be found, but his deputy, Haji Shamsher Khan Afridi, is here.

"Our aim was to ensure peace and security and to enforce the Islamic code," he says.

"But since we took action against smugglers and other criminals it was natural we would face opposition. The very people we fined and punished are making a hue and cry."

'Deaf ear'

Many are questioning why the central government has remained silent on the Tirah valley issue when it is more active on hard-line Islamists in other tribal areas.

The government's silence implies acceptance of the organisation's practices
Ghalib Afridi, tribesman
Tribesman Ghalib Afridi says: "On the one hand the Musharraf government is telling the world it is against religious extremism, but at home he is turning a deaf ear to it."

Governance in the Khyber Agency has often been a grey area, with a number of private, armed organisations operating in the name of improving security.

In 1995, the Benazir Bhutto government crushed one such organisation.

But after a few years, other organisations began to surface to fill the vacuum in public security.

Perhaps surprisingly, the security chief in the tribal lands, retired Brigadier Mehmood Shah, says the government has no objection to organisations that "help it improve law and order in the tribal areas".

However, Brigadier Shah says the government will not permit them to run private prisons, make arbitrary arrests or set up radio stations.

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