Al Qaeda supporters strike back in Pakistan

After the Pakistani military's week-long offensive here inside the country's semiautonomous tribal belt, Al Qaeda supporters have launched a series of counterstrikes.

On Tuesday evening, guerrillas attacked the headquarters of Pakistani paramilitary troops as well as government establishments in the Northwest Frontier Province's capital, Peshawar. In the nearby town of Bannu, a bomb exploded moments before a military convoy was to pass a bridge, killing three policemen and a civilian. In the tribal region of Korram Agency, masked men attacked a military camp, killing three troops. Villagers in South Waziristan have reported a series of explosions, mostly in the evenings.

Significantly, these attacks have taken place well outside the 30-square mile area cordoned off by the Pakistani military in its roundup operation against Al Qaeda fighters. This broadening of the fight suggests that Pakistan could be facing a wider guerrilla war from Al Qaeda and their local supporters.

"They are trying to hit back by adopting guerrilla tactics in an attempt to hurt Pakistani security forces," says Mohammad Noor, a local journalist. "By attacking in other cities and towns, they want to engage [Pakistani] forces beyond the troubled region and want to demonstrate their strength."

The authorities have imposed a ban on riding motorbikes in South Waziristan as militants using bikes are believed to launch rocket attacks on kiosks and military bases. "They operate after sunset in small numbers, mostly two or three, and run away after carrying out attacks," says a local intelligence source.

"Once the darkness covers the mountains, we could see the movements of a few suspicious men carrying rockets over their shoulders, their bodies and faces covered with blankets. They disappeared and we could see only their shadows," says a tribesman in South Waziristan.

The counteroffensive started Monday when a group of guerrillas attacked a military convoy 25 miles outside Wana in Sarwaki village. Ten military and three paramilitary troops were killed. Several convoy vehicles carrying troop supplies into South Waziristan were damaged.

The militants are "feeling the heat, as they fear being uprooted from the region that has provided them shelter and given them a hope of survival. But now it has become a death trap, so they seem to be desperate and will fight a battle for their survival," says Sailab Mehsud, sociologist and a writer in South Waziristan.

Meanwhile, Pakistani authorities are still trying to secure the release of 14 paramilitary troops and administration officials held hostage by Al Qaeda militants and local men. The hostages are believed to have been captured when the fighting began March 16 between paramilitary troops and "foreign terrorists," as Pakistani authorities describe them.

Officials are trying to force cooperation from the Zalikhel tribe, which is accused of harboring Al Qaeda militants. Several tribesmen's houses have been demolished and their businesses shut.

Around 10,000 well-armed and equipped military and paramilitary troops, backed by gunship helicopters, are engaged in fighting with 400 to 500 Al Qaeda militants and their local supporters, known as Men of Al Qaeda, in South Waziristan. Pakistan says that its security forces have struck "solid blows" to foreign terrorists who had been hiding here after crossing the border from Afghanistan into this tribal belt following the ouster of the Taliban by the US and allied forces in 2001.

Several foreign and local militants, said to be mostly Chechens and Uzbeks, were killed during the operation launched on March 16, while around 125 have been arrested. The security forces have cordoned off several towns and villages spread over 30 square miles. Troops are conducting search operations in two of the towns, Schin Warsak and Kallu Shah, which are located some 10 miles west of Wana.

"Pakistan wants to control this region and to cleanse it from Al Qaeda and the Taliban militants. By doing so they will try to finish this problem once and for all and strengthen their presence along the western border [with Afghanistan] as well," says Mr. Mehsud.

Pakistani military troops have entered semiautonomous South Waziristan for the first time since Pakistan was founded in 1947. Most of the tribesmen are enraged as they believe the presence of security forces might take away their independence.

"We are against the operation because of the miseries of innocent tribesmen. Not every tribesman is involved with Al Qaeda and cannot be punished for a sin or crime committed by a few tribesmen," says a tribal elder. "The tribesmen are ready to cooperate and will fully cooperate if the security forces pledge to withdraw from towns and villages after the operation."

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