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Kashmir Militants Lend a Hand

Pakistani earthquake survivors say the only ones who have helped them are the guerrillas that the U.S. and India consider terrorists.

October 24, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

SALOONA, Pakistan — In the eyes of earthquake survivors, the heroes in this devastated valley are not soldiers or relief workers, but guerrillas notorious for suicide bombings and kidnappings.

The magnitude 7.6 quake destroyed about 100 mud-brick homes and a mosque in this village on the morning of Oct. 8. For the first six hours, injured and terrified villagers were on their own as they tried to save those dying in the rubble.

Then, more than 15 militants arrived from a camp concealed in the mountaintop pine forest above Saloona. They even brought their own medics.

"They provided emergency treatment to the injured," said villager Haisa Khan, 65. "They started removing people trapped under the debris. They rescued people we couldn't. Then they dug graves for the dead."

President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly assured U.S. and other foreign officials that he has dismantled militant training camps on Pakistani territory. But interviews with villagers and militants in several regions of North-West Frontier Province and the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir in recent days indicate that a disciplined and well-organized network of guerrilla groups still exists.

Some of the militant groups fighting Indian rule in the state of Jammu and Kashmir have been linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, and to the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. The Kashmiri militants also have long been associated with the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

In this valley about 70 miles north of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, villagers say militants from a camp run by the Al Badr Mujahedin were the first responders to the quake, which killed 17 people in Saloona and injured four others, including a boy who said militants had tended to his broken ankle after rescuing him from the rubble of his home.

Al Badr is one of about a dozen guerrilla forces fighting in the Indian-held portion of Kashmir. It is one of the smaller factions, but India's security forces consider it a ruthless terrorist group whose tactics include suicide bombings, which are rare in Kashmir.

Last year, the State Department's annual report on global terrorism estimated that Al Badr had several hundred fighters. They operate in Jammu and Kashmir state, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the report said.

"The group was relatively inactive until 2000," the report added. "Since then, it has increasingly claimed responsibility for attacks against Indian military targets."

Although India and the U.S. have declared Al Badr a terrorist organization, it is not on Pakistan's list of 16 banned militant groups. It has had a camp on Tanglai mountain for at least six or seven years, villager Khan said.

The people who live in the villages scattered throughout the valley below the camp say they rarely see the militants unless there's an emergency and they come to provide aid.

"They are busy with their own kind of work," said Abdul Rehman, 25, in the village of Bhaibela. "They don't disturb us. They keep to themselves, but always help us when we need anything."

The villagers' only complaint about the militants was that their donated tents leak in the rain that has drenched the region as winter approaches.

India's security forces have reported clashes with Al Badr militants as recently as this summer. In July, Al Badr militants were involved in the kidnapping of five civilians whose bodies were later found on the outskirts of Srinagar, summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, the security forces say.

In February, Al Badr claimed responsibility for a raid on a government building in Srinagar in which at least five people, including two attackers, died.

Investigators linked the same group to the July 2003 suicide bombing of a minority Shiite Muslim mosque that killed at least 53 people in the southern Pakistani city of Quetta.

But in these parts, Al Badr has a sterling reputation. It's the army and the government that locals don't like. Villagers say the only soldiers they have seen since the quake were on their way somewhere else.

"We waved at them, but they didn't stop," said Zeenat Khan, 32, in Bhaibela. "We begged them, 'Please give us some tents,' but they ignored us."

On the day of the quake, villagers say, two militants from the Al Badr camp arrived to survey damage in the area and then climbed back up the mountain to their base.

Hours later, 14 militants arrived in Bhaibela with two canvas tents and their medics, who bandaged wounds and distributed basic medicine such as cough syrup and pain relief tablets, villagers said.

"For the first two or three days, they made regular visits," Rehman said. "But they also had suffered some losses, so they were busy at their camp."

Ten days after the quake, army troops leading the relief effort still hadn't reached thousands of villagers isolated by landslides and the raging Neelum River.

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