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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2007, 18:36 GMT
Welcome to Taleban country
Haroon Rashid
By Haroon Rashid
BBC News, Mir Ali

A red truck comes to a screeching halt next to our vehicle.

Its heavily-tinted windows are lowered to reveal an interior packed with more men than can possibly fit in a vehicle that size.

Taleban on truck
The militants led the way in their pick-up

All have beards and long hair. Another bunch is huddled against each other in the open back of the four-wheel drive.

"Wait for us here. We will come back," the young driver issues us with a curt order.

Seconds later he is gone - bewildered tribesmen in the main bazaar try to make sense of what is going on.

Welcome to Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan's restive tribal area of North Waziristan often frequented by local pro-Taleban militants.

'Judge for yourself'

Our hosts are Baitullah Mehsud's group, their leader a local equivalent of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taleban.

Locals say civilians were killed in the air raid.

Baitullah is believed to head the pro-Taleban militants in the half of South Waziristan dominated by the Mehsud tribe.

He is generally referred to as ameer (chief) sahib and his influence, it seems, spreads far beyond the Mehsud territory.

The militants return after a while. "Ameer sahib sends his greetings too," they inform us, asking the small media group to follow them.

Baitullah had invited a group of journalists to visit the site in South Waziristan bombed by the Pakistani military last week. The army says the place was an al-Qaeda hideout.

Pakistan's military and the local tribesmen agree that the early morning operation took out eight people and injured several others. But they strongly disagree on who the victims were.

map

The government says they were foreign terrorists, while the militants say they were innocent local wood-cutters.

"Our ameer wants you to see the truth and judge for yourself," says Zulfiqar Mehsud, the youngish leader of the militants packed in the vehicle.

"We want you to see the injustice Pakistan is doing to us."

'War booty'

In this mountainous region - where the tribes people used to enjoy virtual autonomy - Pakistani security forces fought fierce battles with local militants until a peace deal in September last year.

They were travelling with two rocket launchers, a heavy machine gun and an AK-47 assault rifle each with no dearth of ammunition

Since the controversial deal, militants seem to have tightened their hold on the region. They say they can now move around freely.

The paramilitary forces and local police are only to be seen in their posts. There is no visible patrolling on the streets.

We dutifully followed the militants on a road heading south from Mir Ali.

Our vehicle zigzagged over a bumpy road through dry plains and green valleys. I asked and was allowed to switch over to the militants' truck.

They were travelling with two rocket launchers, a heavy machine gun and an AK-47 assault rifle each with no dearth of ammunition. Two bags full of ammunition and hand grenades hung from the back of the front seats.

One of the militants pulled out an American AK-47. "It's war booty. We seized it in Afghanistan," he said proudly.

Looking around, I felt I could have been in an arms depot.

"We've to carry all this stuff around all the time. You know the situation. Anything can happen any time," explained an older-looking militant called Malaka by his colleagues.

Another militant, Khan Sher, sitting next to me had been shot in the leg in Afghanistan. He was operated upon but still had a limp. Not that it seemed to affect his active participation in militant activities.

Ammunition in Taleban truck
Ammunition hung from the back of the seats in the truck

The atmosphere in the vehicle was a bit stiff and hostile in the beginning but we all relaxed after a brief chat in Pashto.

On the way, they stopped to demonstrate their firing skills. We were also offered the chance to try our hands at a heavy machine gun.

The next stop was for afternoon prayers on the bank of a stream. Everyone had to pray.

Under a heavily overcast sky, the noise of a spy drone broke the silence as the prayers ended. "An American drone," Zulfiqar Mehsud told us.

Back on the road, the militants put on a cassette with nothing but noise and screeches on it. They claimed it helped avoid detection by American spy planes.

The small speaker on the vehicle's roof was deafening and we immediately requested that the cassette be stopped. It was replaced with Pashto chants eulogising jihad and cursing infidels.

'Revenge'

The three-vehicle convoy arrived three hours later at Kot Kalay, a small hamlet of high mud houses perched on a hilltop in South Waziristan. Journalists were taken to the main mosque to see the waiting relatives of the people who had died in the attack.

Unexploded bomb at scene of air raid in Kot Kalay
Local militants show off the unexploded bomb to reporters

All of them, in the presence of the militants, described the attack as cruel.

"We don't demand any compensation or anything. They have killed innocent people, we will not spare them. We will take revenge," said an agitated Mir Shah Azam Khan, whose 16-year-old son was among the dead.

After a cup of extremely sweet tea, we headed for the site of the raid. In the barren landscape around, the compounds that the Pakistan army had bombed were the only settlements.

Three of the five houses stood on a hill surrounded by higher mountains on all sides - a scene typical of tribal territory.

Local traders told us that only wood-cutters working in the surrounding forests used to spend nights in these high-walled compounds.

The remains of an unexploded 500-pound missile and other bombs were shown to the media. Body parts of the dead were also on display.

Some reports suggest the raid was conducted on the basis of information that a senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Nasser, and some other foreigners, were present in the village.

He is reported to have been wounded but still managed to escape. No official confirmation was available.




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