Violence grows in Pakistan's tribal zone, despite Army presence

Taliban, Al Qaeda said to be rallying in Waziristan.

Music and TV have been banned. Women are confined to their homes. Shops must close five times a day for prayers, an edict enforced by armed religious police who patrol the streets.

These changes, say local residents and reporters, have come just within the past few months to Waziristan, a restive region along the Afghan border that is seen as a possible hideout for Al Qaeda leaders. Last year, under pressure from the US to clean up the semi-autonomous zone, Pakistan launched military operations that ended 10 months ago in a peace deal with some rebel tribes.

Now the harsh edicts and an upsurge in violence suggest that Waziristan is far from pacified. Observers say it is slipping back into the hands of Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, despite the 60,000 Pakistani troops and paramilitaries garrisoned there.

"Since [the deal], the government authority seems to have become weak," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist who reports on Pakistan's tribal area. "The vacuum has been filled by these militants."

In a tally compiled from official sources and newspaper reports, more than 60 pro-government tribal and religious leaders have been killed, two local journalists have been gunned down, and hundreds more people have fled since February.

"They do what they feel like doing and there is no one to stop them," says a local reporter there who left the South Waziristan district capital Wana after receiving threats from militants. "And it's the foreign elements among them," he says, referring to Al Qaeda, "who are calling the shots."

Just this past week, a bomb blast in the bazaar in Jandula left 12 dead. Separately, four paramilitary troops patrolling Wana were kidnapped by militants.

And in North Waziristan, armed Islamic seminary students clashed with a group of bandits, killing at least 20. With a ferocity that harkens back to the early days of the Taliban, the students hung their victims in the streets of the district capital Miran Shah, stuffing their mouths full of money.

The violence came days after an unmanned aircraft killed five suspected militants, including, Pakistani officials say, Abu Hamza Rabia, a top Al Qaeda figure.

Senior Pakistani officials say it's too soon to jump to the conclusion that terrorists were behind last week's violence.

"I don't think it should raise eyebrows or concern," says Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukut Sultan. "It appears these incidents are more related to local politics between the tribes.... It is more related to that than terrorism."

But analysts point out that tribal battle lines have been drawn of late between groups that allied themselves with the Army, and those who sided with the militants. There is increasing evidence that Arab, Uzbek, and Chechen fighters linked to Al Qaeda are operating in the area, according to Mr. Yusufzai and others.

Locals, none of them willing to be quoted, said the militants had gone so far as to open recruiting offices in North and South Waziristan to recruit fighters for their "jihad" against the Pakistan Army and US forces in Afghanistan.

Video released by the militants, and sold in local shops as part of their recruitment drive, show militants training openly.

The militants have even held public gatherings, the most recent in October to mark the year anniversary since the Pakistan military bombed a militant camp in Dela Khula, killing 40 of their comrades.

As part of the February deal, militants pledged to renounce violence and end attacks in Afghanistan. Yet Afghan officials in the three provinces that border Waziristan, contacted by the Monitor, say the frequency and sophistication of cross-border attacks have actually increased.

"They launch suicide attacks, plant bombs, and launch ambushes," says Paktia police chief Aghul Suleiman Khan. "Increasingly, we see Arab fighters leading them."

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