By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 6, 2006
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 5 -- Backed by helicopters and artillery, security forces regained control of a major town near Afghanistan on Sunday after a fierce overnight battle with local tribesmen, authorities said. But sporadic fighting continued, underscoring the challenge that confronts the government four years after its army began operations to secure the remote region.
The government's assertion of progress came a day after hundreds of armed tribesmen seized government buildings in the town of Miran Shah, forcibly shut down the main bazaar and opened fire on an army fort, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the chief military spokesman, said at a news conference Sunday afternoon.
The local insurrection began on the day President Bush met in Islamabad with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, on a visit aimed partly at ensuring Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terrorism. The tribesmen were retaliating for an army assault on a militant training camp in the area earlier in the week.
The fighting Saturday and overnight in Miran Shan and adjacent areas killed 46 tribesmen and five soldiers, another 10 of whom were wounded, Sultan said. Other reports put the death toll at more than 70, including noncombatants.
By Sunday morning, the fighting had calmed down except for "sporadic firing," Sultan said, and militants had abandoned their positions in Miran Shah, a notorious smugglers' haven about 20 miles from Afghanistan that serves as the administrative capital of North Waziristan, one of seven semiautonomous tribal zones in the border region.
The fighting was some of the heaviest in several years on Pakistan's side of the border, as tribesmen on rooftops hammered government positions with rockets and machine-gun fire and the army retaliated with artillery and helicopter gunships. The exchanges sent thousands of people streaming from the embattled town and left some buildings, including a bank, holed by shelling, according to a witness and news reports from Miran Shah.
"It seemed that a war had broken out," said Asif Khan, a student at Miran Shah College, who fled the fighting early Sunday morning and spoke by telephone from the town of Bannu, about 50 miles east of Miran Shah.
Khan, 21, said residents cowered in their homes as gunships strafed rooftop positions during fighting that lasted until morning prayers Sunday. He estimated that about 70 percent of the town's roughly 50,000 residents had fled by Sunday afternoon.
Under pressure from the United States, the government has been trying since early 2002 to assert control over the tribal areas, whose forbidding mountainous terrain serves as refuge for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and is considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The government campaign in the region, which has blended military force with development aid, has not always been welcomed by the Pashtun tribesmen who dominate the area and have resisted outside influence for centuries. The Pasthun tribal belt, which straddles the border with Afghanistan, gave birth to the Taliban, and support for the movement still runs deep. Pro-Taliban politicians who represent the area have accused the government of a heavy-handed approach that feeds tensions along the border, a charge they repeated following reports of the latest fighting in North Waziristan.
"Scores of innocent civilians have been killed to earn a medal from America," Maulana Abdul Malik, a cleric and member of parliament from neighboring South Waziristan, said by satellite phone. "This campaign will turn every tribesman into an anti-Musharraf and anti-U.S. militant."
Sultan, the military spokesman, said the army had taken care to avoid harming civilians, although he acknowledged that "the chances of them being killed cannot be ruled out" because the fighting took place in a settled area.
The episode apparently had its origins in Wednesday's army assault on a militant training camp in the village of Sedgai, a few miles from the Afghan border. The assault by helicopter and special operations troops killed 45 people, including 35 fighters from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, as well as 10 of their local supporters, officials said.
The attack enraged those known in the area as "local Taliban," a description that could apply to just about any conservative Pashtun tribesman with a gun and does not necessarily refer to those fighting U.S. and Afghan forces across the border.
Spurred by two hard-line clerics, the tribesmen moved into Miran Shah late Saturday afternoon, ordered shops to close and occupied several government buildings, including the telephone exchange, Sultan said. Local officials convened a tribal council, or jirga , among tribesmen and shopkeepers in an effort to "dissuade the militants," Sultan said.
While the meeting was in progress, "the militants opened fire" on army positions "from nearby hills from three directions" as well as from rooftops in the town, according to Sultan. "The writ of the government was completely challenged," he said, explaining the army's forceful response.
Later that evening, as the fighting raged in Miran Shah, another group of militants attacked a convoy of paramilitary Frontier Corps troops north of the town. Sultan said 21 militants were killed in the fighting that followed the ambush; another 25 died in and around Miran Shah.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Noor Nawaz, an auto parts dealer in Miran Shah, said he lay awake all night with his wife and three children as helicopters clattered overhead and artillery and mortar fire boomed.
"People are extremely scared. Nobody has slept. Children were crying," he said as he fled with his family Sunday.
Security forces were searching Sunday for the two clerics, Maulvi Abdul Khaliq and Maulana Sadiq Noor, whom Sultan described as "local facilitators of the foreign militants" killed in Wednesday's assault. Noor's madrassa , or Islamic school, in the village of Khattay was "targeted by troops using long-range artillery guns," according to a report in the News, an English-language daily. The telephone exchange in Miran Shah was also destroyed.
Foreign journalists are not permitted to travel to the tribal areas, except on rare, government-sponsored tours, so it is extremely difficult to independently assess the army's progress in bringing stability to the region.
At the news conference Sunday, Sultan denied that the situation in the tribal areas was getting out of hand. "We should not get overexcited or overly concerned about the situation," he said. "Wherever there are militants and terrorists present you have to at times confront them, drive them out."
Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.