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Page last updated at 15:55 GMT, Thursday, 11 October 2007 16:55 UK

Venturing into the Taleban's backyard

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, South Waziristan

Taleban gun post
Taleban positions are well defended with no shortage of fire power
Sitting inside a cramped shop in the town of Jandola in Pakistan's restive tribal area of South Waziristan, we are hoping to be taken to meet the man who is arguably Pakistan's most feared militant.

Baitullah Mehsud has been accused of organising some of the most devastating suicide attacks in the country.

His exploits have included the capture of over 200 Pakistan soldiers on 30 August.

The shop is full of customers, many of whom carry AK-47 rifles.

Dangerous game

The shoppers are pro-Taleban militants, or simply Taleban. The reality here is that the terms are inter-changeable.

Jandola marks the beginning of their territory which extends right up to the Afghan border.

On our way to the town, we crossed several check posts and a large army convoy heading the other way. We were stopped and searched by troops once.

Captured army vehicle
The militants drive in cars captured from the army

The soldiers appear to be from Pakistan's extreme northern area, near Gilgit. They are not native to the area, and are mostly Shia Muslims.

Shias are despised by the predominantly Sunni Muslim Taleban.

When our contacts finally arrive, the change in the atmosphere is electric as their leader walked in.

Mahmood is a cheerful and cherubic young man in his mid-twenties, and greets us in the traditional tribal manner - hand on chest and a slap on the hands.

He is accompanied by four other men - all in their early twenties.

After the greetings Mahmood - the smiling Taleban - motions us to follow.

Solar energy system at Taleban base
The Taleban take advantage of solar energy

Outside we board a pick-up truck for our onward journey.

Mahmood takes the wheel, his AK-47 at his shoulder. My colleague joins him in the front passenger seat.

I am joined in the rear by a young militant called Faisal.

The rest settle in the back, where one of them mans a mounted machine gun.

As we fly along the dusty and pot-holed road, I notice that it is a harsh, arid terrain, with craggy and forbidding mountains lining the horizon.

"A fedayeen attacked a convoy here two days ago," says Faisal as we round a hillside.

Fedayeen - literally those who sacrifice themselves - is the Taleban honorific for a suicide bomber.

Faisal goes on to claim there were several deaths, although the army only admitted three soldiers were injured.

A few minutes later we enter a valley with narrow gorges.

Faisal says the area is called Tangh and has historical importance.

Abandoned check posts

Before partition, he says, Mehsud tribesmen ambushed a 200-vehicle British convoy here.

He says that not a single man escaped as the British forces were cut down.

Pakistani troops in North Waziristan (file photo)
The army is almost completely absent from the area

The past seems to hold few lessons for the present, Faisal argues, because another invading army - this time in the form of the Pakistani military - is also trying to blunder its way through.

But in this territory, there is almost a complete absence of Pakistani soldiers: there are only abandoned check posts and fortifications.

"They haven't come back since we captured the convoy," my guide explains.

"Even the British never came to stay - they knew well enough.

"We will not tolerate the presence of any armed men other than our own in our territory."

It takes us another couple of hours before we reach our destination.

During this time we pass through several small villages.

The reaction of the people is startling - the children smile and wave, while the adults look on with respect and pride.

It appears that local support for the militants is almost universal.

Faisal explains to me why he and his counterparts are increasingly targeting the army.

Damaged car in Dagan, 30km (18 miles) west of Miranshah
The Waziristan tribal area has recently seen heavy fighting

"We are forced to do this because of the government's policies for America's benefit," he says.

He and Mahmood are convinced that if opposition leader Benazir Bhutto returns to Pakistan in a power-sharing deal with President Musharraf, this pro-Americanism will get stronger.

"She is actually a Shia, so what else can we expect," he says.

This anti-Shia resentment is palpable.

In early August, Baitullah Mehsud's militants slaughtered a captured Shia soldier by cutting off his head.

Minutes later we are at our destination.

We see two huge walled compounds, encompassing the homesteads typical of the area, located in a small valley.

A group of children rush out to greet us, followed by several armed Taleban.

Inside, we are told our host - Zulfiqar Mehsud, Baitullah's spokesman and deputy - will take a few hours to join us.

We do not know the cause of the delay, but can be certain that it is not because of the manoeuvres of the Pakistan army, because this is an area in which the militants are in complete control.

What we didn't know at this stage was that Baitullah Mehsud was not here, but away fighting in Afghanistan.

In his next report, Syed Shoaib Hasan talks to Zulfiqar Mehsud and some of the captured Pakistani soldiers.

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