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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Pakistani Taliban take control of wild Waziristan

TANK, Pakistan (Reuters) - When the Pakistan army's front line in its war on terrorism moved elsewhere, and the Taliban took control of his hometown, Baidar decided it was time to leave.

"The government is helpless. The Taliban is in full control there, not religious students, but militant Taliban," said the 30-year-old Wazir tribesman.

Baidar shut his medical store in the bazaar at Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, one of Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal agencies, and moved to Tank, just across the boundary in North West Frontier Province.

"The real worry is for businessmen and educated people because they fear being targeted or killed by the Taliban on suspicion of being informers for the government or America," said the shopkeeper, who, unlike many others, dared to give his name.

The Pakistan army, in the words of President Pervez Musharraf, chased al Qaeda out of South Waziristan "valley by valley" in an offensive that lasted from late 2003 to early 2005.

Thereafter the focus switched to North Waziristan, where more than 300 militants have been killed since mid-2005.

A few of them were core al Qaeda members, such as an Egyptian wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa, but most of the 75 or so foreigners killed were from
Chechnya or Islamist guerrillas from Central Asia.

In an interview with Avt Khyber TV, an independent Pashto-language channel, aired on May 19, Musharraf said the operations against al Qaeda had been very successful, but in the next breath he said: "Extremism and Talibanization are spreading ... now the focus has shifted from terrorism to extremism."

And while the fighting has intensified in North Waziristan, its southern neighbor has become quiet -- too quiet.

"If you say there is peace, I would say yes there is no trouble. But if you ask whether there is any government I would say no," said a member of the Mehsuds, the other dominant tribe in South Waziristan, who, like Baidar, has moved to North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to escape the Taliban's power grab.

"They are basically strengthening their position. They are virtually ruling the roost."

The old social order has broken down in the towns and villages of Waziristan, a region populated by some of the most recalcitrant tribes on Pakistan's side of the Pashtun belt that straddles the border with

As the military campaign moved north, political assassinations became commonplace in the south.

Unknown gunmen ambushed administrators, pro-government tribal elders and journalists, forcing many to flee with their families to the settled areas of NWFP.

"Almost all malakan (pro-government tribal elders) have left Waziristan," said Baidar.


A power vacuum opened the door for militant Muslim clerics, dubbed Pakistani Taliban by the media.

Musharraf says they have no single leader, although they may have ties with the Afghan Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

But Haji Mohammad Omar, a burly, heavily bearded 45-year-old is one of the new forces in South Waziristan.

Residents say his men roam around Wana with rocket launchers mounted on the back of their pick-up trucks.

"We have brought peace in Waziristan. We have eliminated excesses, oppression, robberies and drugs from Waziristan," he told Reuters by telephone from Wana.

The militants have opened offices and set up checkposts in Wana's main market, collecting fees from vehicles entering.

They have even set up a court to conduct summary trials.

Most times the mullahs increase the fine for murders, and executions are rare, although a man convicted of killing his son was shot dead in front of a crowd of 150 tribesmen in late March.

A veteran of the mujahideen guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Omar later fought with the Taliban and met al Qaeda chief
Osama bin Laden.

Now, after being granted an amnesty and being paid to stop making trouble in 2004, Omar openly admits recruiting fighters to send them across the border to fight U.S. and Afghan forces.

He accuses Musharraf of "allying with infidels."

Critics say the government erred by giving militant leaders among the tribes too much respect, and by buying them off.

"These deals gave legitimacy to these people and that's why they are now expanding their influence," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and expert on tribal affairs.

"Much of the Talibanization was spread by the very militants who were handed out massive bribes," a Daily Times editorial in May said bluntly.

Worse still, the vast majority of the deeply conservative and largely illiterate people support this self-styled Taliban of Waziristan, according to intelligence and government officials.

Waziristan's Taliban advise men to grow beards and veil their women, cameras are banned, and the militant mullahs are trying to stop people watching television or listening to music.

Musharraf cited a report he had received of televisions being set ablaze in Malakand, another tribal region on the frontier.

"This is a Talibanized mindset. It has spread. It has to be stopped. Now we are in a different ball game," Musharraf said.

The government is trying to set up councils of respected tribal elders and administrators, but it will take time.

Meantime, Musharraf says military operations must go on, although critics fear Pakistan will suffer from the backlash for years to come.

He warned that the Taliban influence was spreading from tribal areas to neighboring settled areas.

In Tank armed men roam the streets at night on motorcycles. They're Taliban, townsfolk mutter in fear.

"It is just like cancer. It is bound to spread if not properly treated," a senior security officer in Peshawar said.
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