March issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

The South Waziristan tribal agency near the Afghan border plunged into a spiral of fear and violence as army personnel killed 12 people and injured six while firing on a pick-up on February 28. After the encounter, incidents of rocket attacks on the army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps militia camps increased. The government slapped a 5.4 million rupee fine on the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe for failing to stop assaults on government positions.

The killings took place at the Zeray Noor check-post near the border town of Angoor Adda when armed forces opened heavy fire on a pick-up after the driver refused to stop for checking. The incident coincided with a highly unpopular army and paramilitary search-and-cordon operation against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their local sympathisers.

An ISPR spokesman said the killing was a result of crossfire, claiming that army personnel opened fire in retaliation after their post was attacked. However, after initial efforts to justify the civilian killings, the military authorities attributed the deaths to ‘mistaken fire.’

According to local tribesmen, army personnel opened fire on the pick-up following a wireless message from another army post that suspected terrorists were attempting to escape disguised as passengers. The payment of100,000 rupees each to the heirs of the 12 deceased, and 50,000 rupees each to the injured on March 3 by the South Waziristan political agent, Azam Khan, confirmed that even the administration was convinced about the innocence of the victims. Twelve lives, including five Pakistanis’and seven Afghans’, and six injured cost the government a mere 1.5 million rupees in compensation!

Meanwhile, President Musharraf has announced an additional payment of 100,000 and 50,000 rupees to the deceased and injured, besides ordering a probe into the incident. The NWFP governor has constituted a three-member inquiry committee, which has been asked to submit its report within10 days.

The Zeray Noor check-post incident has made the Pakistan army more unpopular in South Waziristan than even before. “Resorting to firing on the pick-up was an extremely cruel act. The tribesmen were already against the army deployment and the operation, now they want the army to withdraw from the agency and hand over the operation to the Frontier Corps, which is familiar with the language, customs and traditions of the area,” says Inamullah Masud, a resident of Wana, the headquarters of the South Waziristan Agency.

Members of a representative jirga of nine Ahmadzai Wazir sub-tribes in Wana, also voiced similar sentiments to the agency’s political agent, Azam Khan, the day after the incident. “The army personnel are not aware of the traditions and customs of the tribesmen. It should not be involved in any operation in the area,” tribal chief Malik Dilawar Khan told the jirga. “The best way to win the cooperation of the local tribesmen and achieve the desired result is to engage the scouts in the search operation.”

Besides calls for the withdrawal of the army, camps of the armed forces have increasingly come under attack in places like Shah Alam, Bermal, Sarwekai, Angoor Adda, Laddha, Tiarza and Wana. Azam Khan confirmed these attacks at the tribal jirga. According to reports, 15 rockets were fired at the Drey Nishtar camp of the Frontier Corps near Angoor Adda. A Frontier Corps fort has also been attacked with rockets and mortars at Sarwekai, in the Mahsud tribe territory, which has so far not been as sympathetic as the Wazir tribe to the Taliban.

A new element in these attacks is the use of bombs. Four paramilitary personnel were injured after their vehicle was wrecked by a bomb blast at Wana bazaar. Fortunately, most of these attacks have been inaccurate and the loss of lives has so far been limited to four, with a few casualties.

The political administration however, believing that pressure tactics are the only effective way to deal with the tribesmen, have called for the reinforcement of army and paramilitary troops. Besides warning the tribesmen to surrender Al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects and inform the administration of their whereabouts, sources claim that the political administration has asked the government to upgrade the present army brigade presence to a full division.

The administration has also arrested 15 tribal chiefs for “their inability to fulfill their promise to surrender those of their clansmen accused of sheltering Al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.” They have been detained for three years under the Frontier Crimes Regulations that governs the tribal areas. The Ahmadzai Wazir tribe has been asked to pay the 5.4 million rupee fine imposed under the same laws, or face tough action.

It appears the government is convinced about the presence of foreign terrorists on South Waziristan soil. Reports suggest that the authorities have intercepted incriminating satellite phone calls through the new monitoring system installed two months back. Apparently the calls mentioned ‘sheikh,’ which the authorities suspect might be a reference to Osama bin Laden.

The government and tribesmen in the South Waziristan Agency seem to be marching towards confrontation. While the administration resorts to pressure tactics and is calling for troop reinforcement to step up its operation against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the people are demanding withdrawal of the army and putting up a stiff resistance to government pressure. Unless the administration takes swift measures to defuse the situation, an already volatile South Waziristan is likely to spin out of control.