Sunday, June 7, 2009

Villagers besiege 200 Taliban in Dir

ISLAMABAD: Hundreds of tribesmen furious over a deadly suicide bombing at a mosque have laid siege to around 200 Taliban in Upper Dir, killing 13 in total – nine of them on Sunday, according to officials and a private TV channel.

The weekend clashes appeared to be the latest evidence of growing anti-Taliban sentiment in Pakistan – a shift that comes as suicide attacks have surged and the military wages an offensive in the nearby Swat valley.

The attack on the mosque killed 33 worshippers during Friday prayers, angering residents of the Haya Gai area of Upper Dir.

Some 400 villagers banded together to attack five villages in the nearby Dhok Darra area that were known Taliban strongholds, said DCO Atifur Rehman.

He said the citizens’ lashkar has occupied three of the villages since Saturday, and was trying to push the Taliban out of the other two on Sunday. Some 20 houses of villagers suspected of harbouring Taliban were destroyed, he added.

“They are standing up against the militants themselves as they consider them troublemakers,” Atif told Reuters over the telephone.

District police Chief Ejaz Ahmad said around 200 Taliban were putting up a tough fight, but were surrounded by the villagers.

One resident of Upper Dir said, “We are Muslims … we don’t want them, they have to go. Attacking a mosque is not Islam. They’re not Muslim.”

Tribal elder Mohtabar Khan said letting the Taliban stay was asking for trouble. “It means inviting a military offensive which we don’t want.”

Pakistan military campaign has broad support, but for how long?

Mardan, Pakistan — Cradled in his father's arms, 8-month-old Maaz Ayaz appeared listless and underweight.A smudge of dirt marked the boy's face. His father, Mohammed Ayaz, anxiously talked of how he and his wife could feed Maaz only tea and biscuits -- the only food they could get their hands on at the refugee camp.
"We've asked for milk, but there's none available," Ayaz said. "We're worried about our boy."
Such moments of anguish abound at the Sheikh Yaseen camp in this chaotic, sun-baked city that has become the hub for Pakistanis fleeing the fighting in the Swat Valley, about 30 miles to the north.
Support for the military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest has been widespread, cutting across economic and ethnic lines. But that support hinges precariously on how Pakistan manages the massive humanitarian crisis created by the war's displacement of an estimated 3 million Pakistanis.

About 200,000 of the displaced people, nearly all ethnic Pashtuns, are crammed into sprawling tent camps in Mardan and elsewhere in the country. The rest have sought refuge with relatives or friends. At Sheikh Yaseen, more than 7,600 people live in 1,485 tents.

The Pakistani military launched the offensive in April after Taliban militants based in Swat began to assert control over adjoining districts, one of them just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

The broad support for the military campaign could be undermined if the flow of displaced Pashtuns to other regions and cities triggers ethnic tensions. Thousands of Pashtuns have sought shelter in camps and homes in the southern port city of Karachi, where political leaders of the majority ethnic Sindhi population have vehemently opposed their influx.

More than half of Karachi's shops and markets closed May 25 after Sindhi nationalists called for a citywide strike to protest the arrival of Pashtuns from Swat. In the past, many Sindhis have opposed the settlement of Pashtuns in Karachi, saying their presence marginalizes locals and takes away jobs.

Pakistanis have been encouraged by reports of the gains being made by the troops against militants, and, experts say, they are realizing how severe of a threat the Taliban poses if allowed to spread unchecked.

That threat was underscored late last month by a suicide bombing outside security buildings in Lahore that killed 27 people and injured more than 250. Pakistani Taliban leaders have claimed responsibility for the attack.

With no end to the conflict in sight, many of the displaced say they're running out of patience. After trekking for days from the Swat Valley with little more than the clothes they were wearing, they have endured weeks of sweltering heat in cramped tent cities with little sanitation and bare-bones health care. Those lucky enough to get their hands on a donated fan are still waiting for the electricity to power it.

Experts say conditions for displaced residents must be improved soon and the pace of the offensive has to quicken, or the government risks losing the public support needed to sustain momentum against the Taliban. Aftab Sherpao, a former Pakistani interior minister, says the displaced Pashtuns could begin rioting in weeks if the crisis isn't dealt with soon.

"These people have left everything they have," Sherpao said. "If this gets prolonged, there could be a volatile response from refugees, and then support will drop. And if the support isn't there anymore, then we're in trouble."

The Pakistani government and military have been emboldened by a level of public backing not seen before. The difference, experts say, is that people believe the government's resolve to root out Taliban militants is stronger than ever before.

In addition, the military has been able to maintain control of territory after driving out Taliban fighters. Mingora, Swat's largest city, has been seen by many as a crucial test because Taliban militants were braced for combat in an urban environment. Pakistani troops, however, have made significant headway, methodically driving militants out of sections of the city, including the infamous town plaza where mutilated corpses were hanged from tree limbs.

Public confidence in the offensive is also bolstered by the fact that, unlike in the past, the country's fractious array of political parties and movements appear to agree on the need for military action against the Taliban. Support from one of Pakistan's most popular politicians, Nawaz Sharif, for the military operation has also helped galvanize public support, said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political analyst in Lahore.

Even among Pashtuns, the main ethnic group in northwest Pakistan, support has grown for the military even as it fights militants who are also Pashtuns. This is largely because of the harshness Taliban rule in areas they controlled. Militants burned down or bombed scores of girls' schools in Swat and carried out public floggings for acts they deemed un-Islamic.

In February, Taliban fighters in Swat agreed to put down their arms if local leaders imposed Sharia, or Islamic law. The Pakistani government acquiesced, hoping the move would bring peace to the region. But soon Taliban militants reneged on the deal, extending their reach into the neighboring district of Buner, upon which Pakistani leaders decided to mount the offensive.

"The Taliban entered into the peace agreement, and then they picked up arms," says Umar Zada, a real estate agent in Mardan. "So it became imperative that this operation be done. We have to do this, or our people will never have peace."

Every day, Umar Zada deals with the fallout of the offensive on his brethren Pashtun; he leads a neighborhood effort to provide food, drinking water and clothing to 175 Pashtun who fled Mingora and now live in a five-room grade school.

The next pivotal step for Pakistani leaders, Umar Zada said, will be reconstruction, to ensure refugees have homes, schools and hospitals to return to once the fighting ends.

"Many innocent people have had their homes destroyed," he said. "Rebuilding has to happen."

At Sheikh Yaseen camp, rebuilding isn't the priority. Getting through the day is.

For a huddle of hungry men suffering through 105-degree heat, temporary relief meant tussling over pieces of ice. They barked at each other and flayed elbows, pouncing on the glistening shards and shoving chips into their mouths while using their dust-covered smocks to haul away larger chunks. By the time they got back to their tents and their families, much of the ice had melted away.

Living at the camp has been particularly agonizing for farmer Lalbat Shah and his family. Fatima, his 5-year-old daughter, was scalded by water from a tea kettle as the family fled their home in Saidu Sharif, the administrative capital of Swat district. The girl has not received any medical attention.

"We've been here 15 days and no healthcare," said Shah, 30, as Fatima, shirtless, stared out from a tent with straw mats as bedding and several hand fans strewn on the ground.

On one recent searing afternoon, the people at the camp mostly huddled inside their canvas tents. A blur of activity came when a supply truck pulled up, triggering an angry scramble that was quelled when security guards with long, thick sticks beat the crowd.

"All we want is peace to return so that we can go back to our homes as soon as possible," said Johar Alishah, 27, a driver from Mingora at the camp with his pregnant wife and 6-year-old son. "These conditions here, we can't bear them anymore."

The TTP’s funding

Dawn Editorial

Perhaps one of the least understood aspects of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is how it finances its activities. An insurgency is an expensive business to carry on: arms and ammunition have to be purchased, communication systems set up, salaries have to be paid to the rank and file and commanders, compensation has to be given to the families of suicide bombers — hundreds of millions of rupees, more likely billions, are needed.

Where does the money come from? Initially, private donations from Karachi, Lahore, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, etc were funneled to the Taliban’s coffers through informal banking channels. In the years since 9/11 some of those routes were shut down, but there is little doubt that a sizeable amount still goes through such channels into the Taliban’s baitul maal. Then there is the Afghan Taliban and their earnings from the drug trade in Afghanistan and their more sophisticated front companies that make investments regionally and internationally and plough some of the money back into insurgency-related activities in Fata.

Clearly, Pakistan and the international community need to do more to follow these trails of money and devise new ways to reduce the flow as much as possible.

There is also the control that the TTP has over economic activities in Fata and, until recently, the northwest. With large swathes of territory under the de facto control of the TTP, the militants have been able to set up check posts and charge ‘customs duties’ on goods moving through those territories. And in Swat, the TTP took a slice of the earnings of the timber mafias operating there and also briefly controlled the lucrative emerald mines. All of this was possible because the TTP physically controlled these areas — wherever they continue to be in control, they will be able to raise funds for their activities.

Perhaps the simplest way for the TTP to generate cash is by robbing banks. The quickest infusion of cash of course comes from walking into a bank and emptying its vault and looting its customers. From Karachi to the Malakand division, across the length and breadth of the country, many bank robberies in recent times have been linked to the TTP. It is difficult to put a figure on the amounts involved given that national data on such crimes is not readily available, but it is easily in the range of tens of millions of rupees. Finally, there is the kidnapping route.

In Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi, even in smaller cities and the tribal areas, rings of kidnappers pick and choose who they will target next from among the rich. The state must work harder to clamp down on these networks which generate easy cash for the militants — every extra rupee raised by them is another rupee available to help the militants fight the state.

Upper Dir tribesmen avenge mosque blast, attack Taliban

ISLAMABAD: Hundreds of tribesmen banded together and attacked Taliban strongholds in a troubled northwestern region to avenge a deadly suicide bombing at a local mosque, a top government official said Sunday.

The incident Saturday underscored a swing in the national mood toward a more anti-Taliban stance —a shift that comes as suicide attacks have surged and the military wages an offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley.

Some 400 villagers from neighboring Upper Dir district, where a suicide bomber killed more then 30 worshippers at a mosque in the Haya Gai area on Friday, formed a militia and attacked five villages in the nearby Dhok Darra area, said Atif-ur-Rehman, the district coordination officer.

The citizens' militia has occupied three of the villages since Saturday and is trying to push the Taliban out of the other two. Some 20 houses suspected of harbouring Taliban were destroyed, he said. At least four militants were killed, he said.

The government has in the past encouraged local citizens to set up militias, known as lashkars, to oust Taliban fighters.

‘It is something very positive that tribesmen are standing against the militants. It will discourage the miscreants,’ Rehman said.

The surge in suicide attacks reached Islamabad late Saturday when a man wearing an explosive-laden jacket attacked a police compound but was shot down before he could enter the main building. Two officers died and six others were wounded, police said.

Meanwhile, Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed Sunday that authorities killed the TNSM’s deputy chief, Maulana Mohammad Alam, and spokesman Amir Izzat because US envoy Richard Holbrooke was visiting.

‘It is a gift the government has presented to Holbrooke,’ Khan told The Associated Press via phone from an undisclosed location. ‘We believe that they are martyred. We want to tell the government that their martyrdom is not going to be futile.’

Islamabad police on high alert after suicide blast

ISLAMABAD: Police in Islamabad were on high alert Sunday after a deadly suicide blast, as the prime minister insisted a spike in attacks would not deter an anti-Taliban offensive.

Two policemen were killed late Saturday when a suicide bomber walked up to a police emergency helpline centre in an Islamabad residential district where many government officials live and detonated explosives strapped to his body.

The nighttime assault came after a suicide blast killed 38 people during Friday prayers at a mosque in Upper Dir, near three northwest districts hit by a six-week military offensive against Taliban fighters.

‘Islamabad police are on high alert. We have taken tough security measures after the bombing on Saturday,’ a senior police official told AFP, asking not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

‘They are conducting surprise checks of vehicles. A combing operation is underway to trace the culprits. We are hopeful the accused would be arrested over the next few days.’ No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

Saturday’s bombing is the latest in a series of attacks on civilian and security targets — attacks widely seen as retribution by extremists for Pakistan’s blistering air and ground offensive.

Since the offensive began in late April more than a dozen bomb blasts have killed over 100 people, with Peshawar, the main city in the northwest, Pakistan’s cultural capital Lahore and now Islamabad all hit.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the Islamabad attack, calling it a ‘cowardly act of terrorism,’ a statement from his office said late Saturday.

‘The prime minister reiterated his government’s resolve to stamp out the menace of militancy and terrorism, adding that such incidents will not deter the government’s commitment to eliminate this scourge from the country,’ it added