Escalated fighting between Pakistani soldiers and militants in the North Waziristan region in the past few days has raised questions about Pakistan's ability to defeat Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in its tribal provinces. As government jets pounded alleged militant hideouts, a number of local residents have reported that the attacks killed scores of civilians. The Pakistani military reports killing at least one prominent Taliban leader and pushing militants back to the Afghan border. Militants retaliated Thursday with two more bomb blasts in the north west of Pakistan . Cease-fire talks are in progress, but so far no breakthroughs have been made.
Fifty people have been killed in the bombings, reports the Pakistani newspaper the Daily Times, taking the death toll from three days of fighting to around 250. The jets bombed "militant targets in Ipi, Khedherkhel, and Khushali Torikhel villages in Mir Ali [district] in the afternoon," according to military sources cited in the article. A cease-fire request from the militants had been turned down by military officials who said they would "continue punitive action until complete peace is restored in restive North Waziristan."
The News, a Pakistani daily, reports that there are likely to have been many civilian casualties since the villages bombed were "mostly peopled by noncombatants."
Eyewitnesses said dozens of bodies were buried under debris of the damaged buildings, while there was no one to recover them, as every family was affected by the bombing and very few people were left to take care of the killed and injured.
... Tribal sources said that majority of those killed and injured in the ongoing gun battle and air strikes were non-combatants, many of them women and children.
Soldiers and militants observed an unofficial cease-fire Tuesday to allow tribespeople to bury the dead, reports Al Jazeera. The entire area has been cut off for about one week.
Mir Ali has a reputation as a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold, but many of the residents say they have nothing to do with either group and were just caught in the crossfire.
... About 1,500 people gathered in the village of Epi on Wednesday, hoping to bury those killed in the previous day's air strikes.
"Thousands of panicked families" have fled North Waziristan and locals used loudspeakers to beg the military not to fire at their homes, reports Islam Online. "Everything is safe there except human life," said Noor Khan, who was among the many thousands of fleeing families. "We don't know who should we stand alongside, the Army or militants? We have become sandwiched between them."
The New York Times also reported the possibility of heavy civilian casualties. It spoke with residents of Mir Ali who said that bombing raids had left more than 60 people dead. Despite the civilian losses, Pakistani security officials have reported killing a prominent Taliban leader and pushing militants back to the Shawal Mountains, a remote area close to the Afghan border that has been used by members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives.
Early Thursday, the Agence France-Presse reported that Pakistani tribal elders were trying to broker a formal cease-fire during talks in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.
"We hope that both sides will agree to ceasefire and roads will be opened," fundamentalist MP and leading negotiator Nek Zaman told AFP before heading to talks with the local administration.
But so far there was no "breakthrough" in the talks, said a tribal elder close to members of the jirga, or tribal peace committee.
In recent months, militants have been increasingly targeting Pakistani soldiers, leading to a fall in morale among the troops, reports the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The headless bodies of several kidnapped soldiers have been found, with messages from the militants warning the army to pull out of the area.
In some of the latest fighting on Monday, the army reported 50 troops missing when a supply convoy to one of the garrisons in the north eastern part of the district was ambushed. Local reports say all 50 were killed and their bodies set on fire. The army says only 25 were killed.
The challenges to the Pakistan Army could "bode poorly for its crucial role in the US-led war on terror," reports The Chicago Tribune.
But hopes for improvement may be stymied by U.S. pressure on Musharraf to lead an unpopular fight against Islamic militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A U.S. law enacted this year links American aid to Pakistan's performance in the war on terror. The U.S. has given Pakistan at least $10 billion, mainly in military aid, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
B. Raman, a former official of the cabinet secretariat in India, wrote a detailed analysis of the situation in Waziristan for Rediff.com, an Indian news portal. He suggests that there is "total administrative collapse" in the tribal region and the "chaos and anarchy have been spreading to adjoining Bannu and other areas."
The Pakistan Army, despite the claims of General Pervez Musharraf is not in a position to restore its authority in the area. At the same time, it is reluctant to let the US forces in nearby Afghan territory mount covert actions against these elements lest it further aggravate the jihadi anger against Musharraf in the tribal and non-tribal areas.
Despite Pakistan's recent efforts, a new US government report has concluded that Al Qaeda is "still the greatest threat to the country's security," reports Radio Free Europe. "The report says that Al-Qaeda remains strong and is secure in the largely ungoverned areas of northwestern Pakistan."