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Page last updated at 15:45 GMT, Monday, 19 May 2008 16:45 UK

No easy answers after Bajaur raid

Taleban militants appear to be in complete control in parts of Bajaur
Taleban militants appear to be in complete control in parts of Bajaur

Rifatullah Orakzai of the BBC's Urdu service is one of the few journalists to visit the village of Damadola in north-west Pakistan following a missile strike there last week blamed on the United States. Here he describes what he saw.

I had been to Damadola in the north-western tribal district of Bajaur before, but getting there was never as difficult as it was this time.

News of a missile strike on a house in the village last Wednesday night came amid reports of progress in the government's peace talks with militants in the region.

At least 14 people were killed by the missile - which the Pakistani army says was fired by an unmanned Predator drone operated by the American CIA in Afghanistan.

It was the third suspected US attack on the village in two years.

An attack in January 2006 reportedly targeted al-Qaeda number two, Ayman al-Zawahri. Between eight and 16 people were killed.

In October of that year, a missile reportedly fired by a US drone hit a religious seminary near the village, killing more than 80 people.

Checkpoints

This time round, I was accompanied by a reporter and a cameraman from Dawn News television channel, both, like myself, based in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province.

Bajaur map

Midway through our journey, at the Nawagai security check post in Mohmand tribal district, the soldiers told us non-local journalists were banned from entering Bajaur.

More journalists from Peshawar were also refused further passage.

We drove back to the main market in Nawagai where we parked our car and boarded a passenger bus to Bajaur.

In tribal areas, travelling on public transport often helps journalists avoid the attention of the security forces, as well as the militants.

But the trick did not work. We were offloaded at the Nawagai post after having been recognised by the men posted there.

Back in Nawagai market, we finally enlisted the support of a local tribesman who helped us reach Damadola.

But things were little clearer once we got there.

We soon learned that after the missile strike, the militants had cordoned off all roads to the house that was hit, and allowed no one close to the site until the premises had been "cleared".

The drive from the mosque to Maulvi Faqir's house is one of the scariest I have ever undertaken

So there is no way of knowing who was killed in the attack, and whether any foreign al-Qaeda militants were among the dead.

Additionally, it is not easy to chat up local people when it comes to discussing Taleban activities in the area.

Taleban militants appear to be in complete control of two Bajaur sub-dsitricts, Mamund and Salarzai, and people seem to be reluctant to express their opinions freely.

There were hundreds of people as well as armed militants at the scene of the missile strike. They were unanimous in their condemnation of Nato troops for carrying out the attack.

But everybody evaded questions about the presence of the Taleban, the activities of foreign militants or why the Bajaur administration's presence in the area was so thin.

They seemed to have been told not to discuss these matters with the press.

Fear

Damadola is a small village of just a few thousand people, perched on a mountain slope within sight of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The house hit in the missile attack in Damadola
What is left of the house hit in the missile attack in Damadola

During our visit, we learnt that the chief spokesman of the Pakistani Taleban, Maulvi Omar, was also present in Damadola.

We found him resting in a village mosque.

He agreed to our request to meet Maulvi Faqir, the top commander of Taleban militants in Bajaur.

Maulvi Omar asked us to get into his double-cabin, four-wheel-drive Toyota truck. A posse of armed Taleban traveled with us.

The drive from the mosque to Maulvi Faqir's house is one of the scariest I have ever undertaken.

It wasn't the mountain terrain, or the fact that we were driving along a completely deserted track. It was the fear of another Nato strike.

One of my colleagues from Dawn News was sitting next to the window. While the militants engaged us in conversation, I quietly urged him to keep scanning the sky for a Nato drone.

Maulvi Faqir's house could be any other house in the tribal areas with a large mud-walled compound which has an interior for the womenfolk and a section for men where guests are received.

There were no security checks on the way to the house, and no armed men guarding the premises.

There was nothing to suggest that it was the residence of perhaps the second most important commander of the Pakistani Taleban after South Waziristan's Baitullah Mehsud.

Unfortunately for us, Maulvi Faqir was not in and we returned empty handed.



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