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Last Updated: Friday, 10 March 2006, 15:15 GMT
Pakistan's Taleban challenge

By Zaffar Abbas
BBC News, Islamabad

Pakistani soldiers drive into Miranshah
Government troops retook control of Miranshah after a fierce battle
This month has seen one of the fiercest battles in recent years in Pakistan's tribal region of Waziristan, with the army saying it has killed more than 120 militants.

Nevertheless, clerics leading the local Taleban remain at large.

So do most of the tribal militants who have refused to accept the writ of the Pakistan government in their largely lawless tribal agency.

Locals fear that the lull may actually be a mere tactical retreat by the battle-hardened tribesmen, which means that the worst may be yet to come.

The security forces are aware of it, as are the tribal people of adjoining areas as well as those aware of the centuries-old politics of the lawless region.

Not too long ago, many were convinced that taming the fearless tribesmen of South Waziristan would be the Pakistani military's major challenge.

They are only just beginning to discover the complexities of the largely unknown territory of North Waziristan.

'Religion above all'

In North Waziristan, it is religion that overrides all tribal bondages and customs, making it the most conservative region in the seven tribal agencies that constitute Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).


Always a hotbed of Taleban activities, recent incidents in the area show that many foreign militants may still be hiding there.

The heavily armed tribesmen, most of them students of local Islamic seminaries (madrassas), are being led by two militant clerics who are now aspiring to establish a Taleban-like government in the area.

Although North Waziristan had been a powder keg for over a year, first signs of a Taleban-like uprising started to emerge in December.

Sparked by a relatively minor incident of extortion involving a gang of tribal thugs and a small group of local madrassa students, violence soon gripped all of North Waziristan.

What happened over the next few days was filmed by some local Taleban to project their "cause" and the video is now being widely circulated.

'Islamic justice'

It makes for extremely disturbing viewing.

Tribal elders at a meeting in Miranshah
North Waziristan is one of Pakistan's most conservative regions

The film features a mob led by armed madrassa students that goes after some persons described as criminals, drug-pushers, bootleggers and extortionists.

They are killed and their bullet-riddled bodies hung from trees and lamp posts with currency notes stuffed in their mouths.

In some cases people are beheaded, their bodies tied to vehicles and dragged through city streets.

Reports from those days indicate that while all this was happening, Pakistani paramilitary troops remained conspicuous by their absence.

They were believed to have locked themselves up in their fortified garrisons.

Those leading the massacre described their campaign as enforcement of what they called "Islamic justice system."

Virtual war

The names of two local clerics surfaced after the killings last year.

They were Maulvi Abdul Khaliq and the other Maulvi Sadiq Noor, the latter believed to be leading local madrassa students and religious extremists.

Villagers flee the fighting in North Waziristan
The fighting forced many villagers to flee

Maulvi Khaliq's madrassa, known as Gulshan-e-Ilm in the main town of Miranshah, had been the base from where the entire anti-military movement was launched.

The trouble in the first week of March started with the security forces targeting a hide-out of suspected foreign militants in the border town of Danday Saidgi.

Officials said 45 people were killed in the attack, including more than 30 foreigners, mostly Chechens.

Two days later, hundreds of pro-Taleban militants declared a virtual war on the Pakistani security forces and government installations.

The fighting started with an attack on a convoy of paramilitary Frontier Corps near Mirali town, spreading to the main town of Miranshah.

Militants took control of almost every government building including the telephone exchange, banks and schools.

The besieged troops retaliated by using heavy machine guns and artillery. Helicopter gunships were also called in to help repel the attack.

The ensuing battle killed and injured many civilians - a major reason why the media is being kept out of the area.

With reinforcements sent from the North West Frontier Province, security forces eventually re-established the government's writ.

But North Waziristan remains in the grip of extreme tension.

Resurgent

Observers of tribal and Afghan politics say North Waziristan is among the last bases for the resurgent Taleban in their battle against the Afghan government.

Its terrain as well as support from local militants provides them the best possible as well as a base for carrying out attacks in Afghanistan.

They have successfully mobilized local support to an extent that there is now a highly active Taleban movement of its own in the area.

The movement is taking on the Pakistani security forces not in the name of tribal independence, but for a self-styled Islamic system.

No one can predict how the situation will emerge in North Waziristan in coming weeks and months.

But there are strong indications of a very bloody conflict before things start to settle down.




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