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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.

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"The idea of no-go areas within Peshawar is very new," says security analyst Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah (ret.). "Peshawar bazaars used to be so famous that people from all over Pakistan would come here to buy fabric."

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The situation is changing. Last August, Peshawar saw its first-ever school bombing, of a girls' high school in Budaber – the only one in Peshawar. The blast destroyed the building's 26 rooms, though there were no casualties since it happened in the middle of the night.

On the morning the school was targeted America's chief diplomat in the province, Lynne Tracy, narrowly escaped being killed when her car was ambushed. About two months later, a USAID official was killed with his driver in Peshawar. More recently, a Polish engineer was abducted while driving to work just outside the city and later beheaded.

Of the 59 suicide attacks in Pakistan last year, 32 occurred in the NWFP and four targeted Peshawar directly.

Many clerics and political leaders critical of the Taliban have been kidnapped and shot dead. Most recently, last month Alamzeb Khan, a member of the Provincial Assembly, was killed when his car exploded only a few miles from his house. Mr. Khan had promised to take a message of peace to Swat, where the Army and militants had been battling until they agreed to a cease-fire a few weeks ago.

Kidnappings of businessmen and journalists have become common in the city – even as the police's ability to prevent them is diminishing.

When Muhammed Javed Afridi, a newspaper reporter, was released in October after spending 25 days in captivity, he went to the police to request more protection. In return, they offered him four temporary permits for semiautomatic weapons.

"That's when I realized my security was in my hands," the journalist says. "Now, I never travel without carrying my Kalashnikov with me."

Mr. Afridi isn't the only one who feels the need to arm himself: The Interior Ministry issued 50 percent more licenses for pistols and handguns in 2008 than in the year before.

Guns may fall into the wrong hands

With more and more guns making their ways into residents' hands, and civilian patrols becoming more common, security analysts have grown worried about these quasi-police forces.

The greatest fear over the distribution of guns is that these arms may make their way into the hands of terrorists, says Ayesha Siddiqa Agha, a defense analyst based in Islamabad. On the other hand, she says she can understand why young men are taking up arms.

"People are picking up guns because they feel there is no law and order in the country," Ms. Agha continues. "The writ of the state is very weak and the police don't have the ability to protect its citizens. As a result, security has become privatized."

Many politicians also oppose the idea of arming Peshawar's public. Former NWFP chief minister and current opposition leader Akram Durrani says the initiative baffles him. Even with tight controls, he says, it's impossible to stop these weapons from falling into the hands of children, militants, or criminal mafias.

"This move will help us create more terrorists, not defeat them," he adds.