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Second round: Worse than the first
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Prodded by an impatient United States, Pakistani paramilitary troops have gone on the offensive in the hunt for foreign fighters in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
In fierce clashes in the Ghat Ghar area, about 20 miles west of Wana, the main town in the South Waziristan tribal area, Asia Times Online contacts report that 18 Pakistani security troops and eight insurgents were killed on Wednesday. Pakistani officials have acknowledged the death of 20 insurgents and one paramilitary soldier, according to Brigadier Mahmood Shah, chief of security for Pakistan's tribal regions.

The bloodshed follows weeks of failed efforts to get militants in South Waziristan to surrender to authorities by peaceful means after an army offensive in March left scores of people dead in the face of strong resistance by tribal fighters to the Pakistani army. The militants have refused to register with authorities despite a government amnesty offer that would allow them to settle in Pakistan if they renounce terrorism and abide by national laws.

Following the reversals in March, and the bitter feelings that the presence of the army aroused in the tribal areas, Pakistan has been extremely reluctant to use troops again. But US pressure has been relentless, and US officials were even seen in a Pakistani army camp in Wana involved in directing the latest operations. These began after rockets were fired on an army camp in Wana, as well as on some check posts in North Waziristan in the wee hours of Wednesday. Both ground troops and the air force were involved.

Significantly, the initial attacks were made from the Mehsood tribal area, which up to now has been considered pro-Pakistan government with no kinship in Afghanistan. Indeed, in the March offensive, they actually took the government side against the Wazir tribes who headed the resistance. Now they appear to have thrown in their lot with the Wazirs.

The most immediate target of the army is Nek Mohammed, a key Pakistani leader of the insurgency in the tribal areas, but his deep connections allowed him to disappear long before the trouble began. Nek being a target could explain the sudden resistance from the Mehsood tribals. When the hunt was for foreign targets, they supported the initiative, but when it is for a Pakistani national, they resist.

Nek is a 26-year-old former Taliban commander and loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He outright rejects any compromise in handing over foreign fighters to Pakistan (read US) authorities, such as Aiman al-Zawahir or his al-Qaeda boss, Osama bin Laden (if he is even alive) and Uzbek leader Tahir Yuldevish.

Wednesday's clashes were preceded by several days of last-ditch Pakistan attempts to stave off the dreaded military option, including a threat to raze Wana's main bazaar, a move that would economically ruin the tribals. All this achieved, though, was to draw more tribals into the resistance camp, which is becoming increasingly more organized. Asia Times Online contacts in Wana say that the tribals will use more sophisticated ams than before, and attempt to open up several fronts, including the urban centers of North West Frontier Province, in which the tribal areas are located.

Even the anti-Taliban and nationalist National Awami Party opposed the use of force, with its central secretary general, Latif Afridi, asking the government to withdraw its troops.

The scene is now set for even more fierce resistance than in March: the previous operation was clearly targeted at foreign elements, especially "high-value" ones. However, as most tribals know, most of the foreigners have already left the area, and now the focus is on a Pakistani - Nek. When the skirmishes began on Wednesday, the 4,000-strong tribal lashkar (para-military force) was conspicuous by its non-involvement - it did not fire a single bullet on the insurgents, which forced the Pakistani army itself to step in once again into the quagmire of South Waziristan.

  • Separately, Afghan and US forces claim to have killed scores of Taliban rebels in a seven-day operation in mountainous Zabul province in Afghanistan. Jan Mohammed Khan, commander of Afghan forces and the governor of neighboring Uruzgan province, said that 73 Taliban fighters were killed and 13 captured over seven days, while six Afghan government forces and four coalition soldiers were wounded and none killed.

    In another development, at least 11 Chinese construction workers were shot dead on Wednesday when gunmen launched a night-time raid on their compound south of the northern town of Kunduz. Up to 20 armed men stormed the site and opened fire in what the Chinese embassy said was a "terrorist attack".

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  • Jun 11, 2004

    Twin hot spots near boiling point
    (Jun 5, '04)

    Troubled Karachi held to ransom (Jun 3, '04)

    Pakistan: After the hammer, now the screws
    (May 19, '04)


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