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Pakistani Army Again Targets Border Areas

Combat with foreign militants and their tribal backers resumes. An ex-Taliban fighter is reportedly killed.

June 18, 2004|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani troops Thursday launched the latest in their on-again, off-again clashes with foreign and home-grown militants in the tribal lands along the country's border with Afghanistan, and reportedly killed a former Taliban fighter who had embarrassed the government in previous offensives.

The strike in which military officials said they believed that Nek Mohammed, 27, was killed came three days after they announced that a previous combat operation against militants had ended. The fighting underscored the difficulties President Pervez Musharraf's government faces as Pakistan tries to contain terrorists in its own unruly lands.

An attempt to capture Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in March ended abruptly with a truce negotiated with Mohammed after Pakistani forces encountered armed resistance from local tribes. The government agreed to halt its offensive if foreigners in the area agreed to register with authorities.

For two months the military held back, as critics at home and in the United States said Pakistan was not doing enough to contain the militants. Meanwhile, flouting the terms of the truce, no foreigners registered.

After an ambush killed 15 Pakistani security troops last week, the military renewed its offensive, calling in jets for the first time to bomb militant positions.

Using heavy firepower against locals who are protecting the foreign fighters -- especially against Pakistanis as fiercely independent as the tribes of the South Waziristan region -- carries risks. But so would allowing foreign militants to have free rein in the border areas.

"You don't want to let those elements regroup," said Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the defense and strategic studies department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "But you also don't want to go after them in a way that generates more support for their mind-set."

Indeed, two days after last week's fighting broke out, gunmen ambushed a Pakistani general's convoy in Karachi. And Thursday's fighting came as security forces braced for possible terrorist strikes near Islamabad, the capital.

Even some tribal officials who oppose the presence of Al Qaeda are critical of the offensive.

"America wanted quick results and they [the Pakistani government] had no other option except the army," said Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi, a senator from South Waziristan. "It has killed so many people."

Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the top military spokesman, said in an interview Thursday that the army was trying to minimize civilian casualties but that the operation could not be delayed.

He acknowledged that the combat could inspire terrorism. "Pakistan has taken a tough decision," he said.

The tribal areas are spread along much of Pakistan's rugged, approximately 1,500-mile-long border with Afghanistan and have long existed as virtual separate societies from the rest of the nation. They have their own tribal laws and few contacts with the central government.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Musharraf deployed 70,000 troops in the tribal areas and elsewhere along the border in an attempt to keep Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from entering Pakistan. The government has banned foreign journalists from the areas.

Though many of the nation's seven tribal districts have been quiet, skirmishes have been breaking out in South Waziristan since October. Some observers say the problem lies with tribesmen who are paid by Al Qaeda to bring militants across the border and are reluctant to surrender their livelihood.

The issue became personal for Musharraf in December when he survived two assassination attempts. Pakistani officials say the explosives used originated in Wana, the administrative center of South Waziristan.

In March, the fierce resistance of tribesmen to a military incursion led Pakistani officials to declare that their forces had surrounded a high-profile suspect -- possibly Osama bin Laden's second in command, Ayman Zawahiri. But the offensive stopped after a few weeks of fierce fighting, and there was no trace of Zawahiri in the region, which has tunnels, fortified bunkers and training camps.

Last week, after the ambush that killed 15 security personnel, the fighting resumed. Sultan said the government could wait only so long.

"OK, dialogues are fine," he said. "But tell these idiots not to engage in terrorist acts in the country in the meantime."

Sultan said the combat stopped Sunday night because the military had met its objective of destroying a bunker near Wana. However, sporadic exchanges of gunfire have continued all week, including an assault by militants on an army base Wednesday.

Thursday's fighting appeared centered on the forested area of Baghar, on the Afghanistan border about 30 miles west of Wana, witnesses said. Jets and helicopters struck an area where militant leaders had been meeting, people in the region said by telephone. Sultan said the military had reports that Mohammed was killed in that attack.

Witnesses said that troops had occupied schoolhouses, drawing rocket fire from militants, and that residents were increasingly angry with the army. The provincial governor, a member of an opposition religious party, called a news conference Wednesday to condemn the operations.

Mohammed Maraig-Uddin Quereshi, another member of the opposition who represents the Wana area in the National Assembly, criticized the military's actions.

"Now when someone's innocent child dies [in the fighting], everyone knows it is because of the Americans," he said.

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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