By Imtiaz Ali and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct. 9 -- As many as 250 people, including at least 45 soldiers, have been killed in fierce fighting in northwestern Pakistan over the past four days, with Pakistani military jets bombing suspected insurgent hideouts as troops encountered strong resistance, officials and residents said Tuesday.
The military said that at least 150 insurgents had been killed in the battles in North Waziristan, a remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan that al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters have used as a base for operations.
The most intense clashes have occurred in the town of Mir Ali, where the military has deployed heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and fighter jets to try to oust insurgents who have been waging an aggressive campaign against the Pakistani army. The use of fighter jets is unusual, but government officials said it was necessary given the firepower they were facing from the radical fighters.
"The resistance from local Taliban is tougher than what the government usually expects," conceded a tribal affairs official in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province. "Such tough resistance also gives credence to speculation that al-Qaeda-trained foreign fighters might be backing these local Taliban."
The Taliban, an extremist Islamic movement, ruled most of Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda until it was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
The fighting in Pakistan's northwest, which began late Saturday with an insurgent strike on a military convoy, has taken a heavy toll on civilians. There were reports Tuesday of large numbers of casualties among local residents caught in the crossfire. Civilians in some villages used mosque loudspeakers to appeal to both sides not to target homes or shopping areas.
Meanwhile, an exodus was underway for those who were able to leave.
Mohammad Zarin, 33, made it from Mir Ali to the nearby town of Bannu on Tuesday with his mother, wife, three children, sister-in-law, three nephews and two nieces.
"It was a hard decision to leave our home in Mir Ali. But life is more precious than material things," Zarin said by phone. "We decided to leave our home for the sake of our children."
Zarin said his older brother stayed behind to look after the family's home.
"The first priority of every family is to take their women and children to a safer place, and leave one person at home to take care of the household," he said.
For others, it was too late.
"I have seen people digging graves for the dead bodies," said Malik Mumtaz, a tribal elder from North Waziristan. "Others are busy rushing their injured to the nearby hospitals."
He said many of the wounded had to be taken to hospitals in Bannu or Peshawar because electricity had been cut in North Waziristan and the hospitals were out of medicine.
Military officials conceded that the heavy fighting might have resulted in civilian casualties, though they would not give specifics.
Mumtaz said two Pakistani army jets had bombed the village of Aipi around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, killing approximately 50 tribesmen.
That account was impossible to verify. Waziristan has become completely inaccessible even to most Pakistanis from outside the area, and aid groups long ago had to shutter their operations there. The few local journalists who are able to report from the region do so covertly.
Rising militancy in the tribal areas has been a major concern for the United States. The White House on Tuesday released a report that again pointed to Pakistan's tribal belt as an operational headquarters for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.
The problem was only exacerbated, the White House has said, by a 2006 peace deal in North Waziristan that required the Pakistani military to pull back to its barracks. The deal fell apart this summer, but many critics contend that Pakistan is now suffering the consequences of a policy that allowed extremist groups to rebuild.
"I have said repeatedly that the peace agreement with the tribals in Pakistan failed Pakistan and it failed us," Frances Fragos Townsend, homeland security adviser to the White House, said in a conference call with reporters. "And obviously, that's one of the fundamental things that al-Qaeda took advantage of to reestablish a safe haven in the tribal areas."
Townsend refrained from directly criticizing the embattled Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Instead, she emphasized the U.S. commitment to working with his government. "We have enjoyed some of our biggest successes with our allies in Pakistan," Townsend said, noting the arrest by Pakistani authorities of several key al-Qaeda operatives in recent years.
Musharraf's cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism efforts has not been popular in Pakistan.
"The military operations are being conducted for the sole purpose of appeasing the United States at the expense of innocent tribesmen who have nothing to do with al-Qaeda and the Taliban," said Mumtaz, the tribal elder.
More than 250 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in fighting over the past three months. Another 250 remain in Taliban custody after they surrendered to a group of insurgents in late August.
On Tuesday, residents of Waziristan reported seeing scores of bodies -- including beheaded Pakistani soldiers -- on the outskirts of Mir Ali as they fled the area.
Witte reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.