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Pakistani vigilantes take on Taliban

Residents of Peshawar, the main city outside militants' stronghold in the tribal areas, are forming armed patrols to defend their villages – sometimes with official backing.

By Ayesha NasirContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

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Peshawar, Pakistan

In the town of Budaber, six miles from Peshawar's city center, Daud Khan makes sure his Kalashnikov is loaded before stepping into the dark street. As he walks out, seven young men join him, all armed.

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Mr. Khan is a member of the nighttime civilian patrols that guard the streets and escort residents home. They usually work from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., the peak time for bomb attacks, a local says.

Do-it-yourself security teams are becoming a fixture in and around Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, as residents grow wary of the Taliban's growing presence – and doubtful of the government's ability to protect them. Some officials have backed the vigilantes, even supplied them with weapons, raising concerns they may fall into the wrong hands.

But residents are more worried about security. "It's the only way we can stay safe," says Khan. "Our survival against the Taliban lies in our personal efforts to guard ourselves."

30,000 rifles for 'patriotic people'

The Budaber operation was established at the behest of a member of the Provincial Assembly, but broader government support for such initiatives became evident last month when the provincial chief minister issued a controversial order to distribute guns for civilians to protect themselves.

In a press statement, Ameer Haider Khan Hoti directed officials to distribute 30,000 rifles among "patriotic people" and "peace loving groups" to guard their villages and help the police tackle terrorism.

The statement said that the chief minister had ordered officials to "take proper guarantees from people" before issuing the "village defence rifles" that would be used "against miscreants and anti-state elements."

Such village militias have been credited with reducing violence in Iraq. A similar initiative is being considered in Afghanistan.

Peshawar city police spokesman Ijaz Abid says he fully supports the effort. "Since the police is repeatedly being targeted by militants, we are having major problems recruiting more people into the police force," he says.

"We need all the help we can get, and if civilians can do some part of our job, nothing like it," he continues.

According to police and local media sources, on Feb. 4, residents working with security forces shot at militants attempting to abduct a local government official, Nazim Fahimur Rehman, from his office on the outskirts of Peshawar. Together they killed nine people.

"It was thanks to the efforts of local citizens that we were able to defeat the militants," the inspector general of the Peshawar police said later at a press conference.

'No-go areas' on the rise

The need for such initiatives is becoming urgent due to the growing hold of the Taliban in Peshawar, Mr. Abid says, as the militants extend their reach beyond the largely ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas next door. In the south of the city, on the roads to Mohmand and Khyber agencies in FATA, residents talk despairingly about the "Taliban raj," or the rule of the Talibans.

A year ago, students here would grab their satchels and walk to school without a worry. A city of more than 1.4 million people, Peshawar has long been known as a melting pot of Afghan and Pakistani cultures and a haven for musicians, artists, and intellectuals.