'Pakistan has awakened': Locals fight back against Taliban

A new militia is targeting militants in revenge for a mosque bombing Friday. Some say it could be a turning of the tide in public sentiment, driven by recent Army successes.

A Pakistani soldier on Saturday carried a teenage boy, who was wounded a day earlier in a suicide attack at a mosque in Upper Dir district. Locals have taken up arms against the Taliban, blaming them for the bombing.

As the Pakistani military cracks down on Taliban forces in the Swat Valley, hundreds of villagers in the country's troubled northwest region are themselves taking up arms against the insurgents. They have formed a militia and are fighting back the Taliban to avenge the bombing at a mosque on Friday that killed at least 40 people.

Some view the uprising as part of an ongoing local conflict, but others hail the move as a turning of the tide in public sentiment against the Taliban – driven in part by the military's recent successes.

"Once the Army moves in like it has, at some point in time you'll see people gathering courage and standing up against these people," says security analyst Mahmood Shah, a former governor of Pakistan's tribal areas. "I think the nation has decided that these militants must be driven out of the territory of Pakistan and they must be punished."

It may be precisely because the military is driving the Taliban out of the Swat Valley that locals are running them down in the nearby Dir Valley, a crossing point between Swat and Afghanistan.

"Some of the [fleeing] Taliban have strayed over into the frontier, and what's happened is the local people don't want that area to become a scene of conflict. So the local people have banded together and taken care of the situation themselves," says Ikram Sehgal, publisher of the Defence Journal. "I think it's significant that one of the escape routes has been blocked off for them and that helps the Army focus on the eastern [escape routes]."

'Pakistan has awakened'

An estimated 1,500 locals in dozens of villages, some shouting "Pakistan has awakened" and toting rifles and machine guns, are fighting against 250 militants, according to local news sources. The locals have asked the military to intervene by attacking Taliban strongholds with helicopter gunships.

Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the military, welcomed the move as a "positive step," adding: "The people have risen; they have all the right to rise and turn these people out from the area in the wake of tragedy."

Ahmed Rashid, a leading journalist and author of "Descent into Chaos", says that anti-Taliban militias in the past have initially fared well before ultimately failing because of a lack of support by the government. "The real question is will the military defend the population and take advantage of this upsurge in public anger? So far, unfortunately, the military has failed to defend the people. What you need is a strategy to encourage local resistance to Taliban and then to back it."

General Abbas would not comment on whether the military would directly intervene as Upper Dir is not part of the military's current theatre of conflict with the Taliban in the Swat Valley. He, however, stated that the Frontier Constabulary – a local paramilitary force – may come to the locals' support.

Ongoing conflict between locals, Taliban

The militia – or lashkar – began its attack on Saturday when, according to The News, a leading English daily, armed men from three villages in the Haya Gai region of Upper Dir district attacked six villages in the Dhok Darra area that were harboring Afghan militants. At least 11 militants, including foreigners, have been killed so far amid intense fighting, according to media reports, and several hideouts have also been destroyed as the fighting continues.

Veteran journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar bureau chief of the News, believes the conflict is more localized. "This is just a local issue – it has become a revenge attack," he says, noting that locals were irked by a set of five pro-Taliban villages, worrying that their surrounding villages could be prone to drone attacks as a result. According to Mr. Yusufzai, the anti-Taliban villages had economically boycotted the pro-Taliban villages, and the suicide bombing incident at the mosque – likely a Taliban response to the boycott – was the final straw.

Other media reports suggest that tribal elders, who were present at the mosque that was attacked, were already planning to raise this lashkar before the attack.

Now, says Yusufzai, the three remaining Taliban villages are surrounded. "They would have to leave the area, surrender, or force the Taliban among them to leave."

Staff writer Ben Arnoldy contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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