Pro-Taliban tribesmen battle Al Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan

In the Pakistani region of South Waziristan, fierce fighting between pro-Taliban tribesmen and Al-Qaeda-linked Uzbek militants has left at least 58 dead.

The Pakistani newspaper DAWN writes that fighting broke out Monday near the town of Wana, sparked by last week's murder of an Arab reportedly linked to Al Qaeda.

Maulavi Nazir, a top pro-Taliban militant commander in Wana region, suspected Uzbeks for their involvement in the murder. ...

Maulvai Nazir had strained relations with Uzbek militants due to their alleged involvement in local crimes, decided to take them on, banking largely on popular support for his action, government and security officials said.

DAWN reports that as of Tuesday, 42 Uzbek militants and 16 members of local tribes died in the fighting between the two groups.

There was no independent confirmation of the death toll on both sides but information gathered from three different government security sources corroborate reports emerging from the restive region that the tribespeople who had once whole-heartedly welcomed foreign militants were now on a hunting spree for them.

Officials said announcements were made from mosques on loudspeakers in some villages in Wana, regional headquarters of South Waziristan, exhorting local tribespeople to stand up and wage a "jihad" against Uzbeks.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the death toll from the fighting now numbers at least 70.

DAWN reports the Uzbeks are associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that the US State Department says is affliated with Al Qaeda. The State Department writes that, since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, "the IMU has been predominantly occupied with attacks on U.S. and Coalition soldiers in Afghanistan and Pakistan." But the BBC reports that the Uzbek militants involved in the fighting "had largely kept themselves to themselves and were not linked to al-Qaeda's anti-Western agenda."

Reuters writes that the Pashtun people of South Waziristan originally gave refuge to the Uzbek militants despite Pakistani government efforts to oust them from the region. Now, however, "officials and residents said the clashes showed that the inhabitants had turned against the foreigners."

"Most people are against them because they are the main source of security problems in our area," said a resident, who declined to be identified.

The current fighting is the second flare-up between tribesmen and Uzbeks in March. Earlier this month, Reuters reported fighting between the two groups after Uzbek militants tried to assassinate Malik Saeedullah Khan, a pro-government tribal elder. Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency reported that a ceasefire was eventually negotiated, but not before 18 people, mostly Uzbek militants, were killed.

For their part, the Pakistani military and government are staying out of the conflict, though they are watching it "with considerable optimism," reports The New York Times.

"Let the tribespeople deal with the situation," one government official said. "That's the best way to deal with the problem. There is a groundswell of support for action against Uzbeks, and any attempt by the government to intervene in support of the tribal action would actually discredit it. There is tribal sensitivity involved here."

A senior security official said the local tribal commander, Maulavi Nazir, had given Uzbeks until Wednesday morning "to surrender, leave or prepare for action."

The Pakistan Times reports that military spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad called the tribesmen's efforts "a success of the government strategy ... the tribesmen are fed up with them because they and their activities adversely affect their lives and business."

Pakistan signed peace treaties with Taliban-linked tribesmen in the provinces of North and South Waziristan, located along the border with Afghanistan. After failed military campaigns to oust militants from the provinces, Pakistan withdrew its forces from South Waziristan in 2004 and North Waziristan in 2006, in exchange for local tribesmen's promises to evict foreign fighters from Pakistan. The peace treaties were widely criticized as capitulation to Taliban and Al Qaeda forces operating out of Pakistan.

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