Pakistan tries amnesty to stem tribal support for Al Qaeda

In offering amnesty this weekend to five wanted tribesmen in this lawless region on the Afghan border, the Pakistan military hopes to isolate "foreign terrorists" by cutting off their local support and dismantling their safe haven.

Under the deal, officials say, the "Men of Al Qaeda" agree not to aid foreign fighters, use Pakistan's territory for any terrorist activity, or involve themselves in any terrorist attack across the border.

The military also set an April 30 deadline for foreigners living in this semi-autonomous region to surrender or face military action, suggesting a possible operation in the mountains where "foreign terrorists" are believed to be in hiding.

The agreement holds out the prospect of ending a protracted confrontation between the Army and the pro-Al Qaeda commanders' local force of more than 2,000 fighters, who have been accused of assisting foreign terrorists in South Waziristan. But some observers urge caution, saying any future operations against foreign fighters - Arabs, Chechens, and Uzbeks - will test the accord's strength.

"There is always suspicion because the relationship between the local mujahideen and foreign mujahideen is ideological," says Ghulam Rabbani Mehsus, chairman of Tehrik-e-Mafad-e-Qabail, or the movement for safeguarding tribal interests. "Both share the same goal of waging jihad against America and sacrificing their lives in the name of Allah. So it will be difficult for them to part ways."

The agreement was announced in a colorful traditional jirga, or tribal gathering, in this mountainous town and was attended by thousands of turbaned and bearded tribesmen and elders, who danced to the beat of drums as hundreds of mujahideen armed with rockets, automatic weapons, and machine guns surfaced after months of hiding.

Military commanders hugged the wanted men after they pledged loyalty to Pakistan and its Army. The men were given tributes by elders and clerics.

"We are brothers. Whenever there are bad times, Pakistani forces will find us with them," says Naik Mohammad, the most wanted man. "We will fulfill the conditions of the agreement."

The show of friendship between the military and tribesmen followed several months of military tensions in this tribal belt, where officials believe about 600 "foreign terrorists" are still in hiding.

A top commander of the Frontier province, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, praised the tribesmen and announced a development project worth 91 million rupees for the region. He also announced the release of 50 tribesmen, arrested during the recent operation. "We are brothers. If you cooperate with us, then we can cleanse the area from foreign extremists and make it possible," he said.

Tribal sources say most of the foreigners have left the towns and villages and are in hiding in the mountains of Shawwal, Khamrang, and Shikai, which have unlimited escape routes. The tribal sources say Shawwal, the highest mountain peak in Waziristan, is likely to be the concentration of the future military action. "Shawaal is a difficult mountainous terrain from which to launch an operation," says a tribal elder. "[These foreigners] are well equipped and can fight for weeks."

South Waziristan has been at center stage since the Taliban militia were ousted by US forces and hordes of Al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas crossed the border and took refuge in this tribal belt.

The level of resistance offered by the Men of Al Qaeda and their fighters during a major operation last month, loss of life on both sides, and countrywide protests by opposition and religious fundamentalist political parties for fighting "their own people" without consulting tribal elders may have compelled the Pakistani military to change tactics. They moved to find a solution with the help of tribal elders and influential clerics, and held out the threat of confiscating properties and businesses.

Pakistani forces hope the agreement will allow them to launch more successful military actions against foreign terrorists. "The local Al Qaeda men have always served as shield to foreign mujahideen," says tribesman Dilawar Khan. "If the military is able to withdraw this shield then to counter Al Qaeda will be much easier. "

"By pardoning local mujahideen and threatening foreign mujahideen, the strategy is to isolate foreign terrorists. It is an attempt to break the backbone of Al Qaeda leaders and their fighters," says an educated tribal elder, Haji Ajam Khan Tojikhel. "Local mujahideen and Arabs, Chechens, and Uzbeks have lived like a big one family here, but now the government wants to create dents among the family."

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