Scores Of Foreign Militants Killed In Pakistan Clashes, Risks Further Bloodshed

Wednesday, March 21st 2007, 2:00 pm
By: News On 6

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Fighting this week between local and foreign militants near the Afghan border was cited Wednesday by Pakistan's government as a testament to the success of efforts to get tribesmen to root out al-Qaida fighters.

But the bloodshed, which has killed about 100 people, underscored the government's inability to police the region and could unleash a cycle of violence between the warring factions, experts warned.

At least two children were killed and around 20 wounded when a stray mortar round hit their school bus after the fighting broke out Monday in South Waziristan, where international humanitarian agencies have no access.

Senior government and intelligence officials said about 105 people _ mostly Uzbeks and Chechens and their local supporters _ had been killed in three days of clashes. It was the deadliest episode reported involving foreign militants who fled to Pakistan's lawless tribal regions from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

It was not possible to confirm the death toll independently because phone lines to South Waziristan were down and journalists have minimal access to the lawless region, a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said the battle proved the government's policy of trying to get local tribesmen to expel foreign militants was working. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Wahid Arshad described the local militants as ``patriots.''

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that tribal groups have started to fight back against extremists.

``You have to separate the population from the foreign fighters. And you do that through fighting _ the Pakistani army fighting them, through the tribals fighting them,'' she said.

Experts, however, say militants with links to Taliban and al-Qaida are involved on both sides of the current conflict, which also pits local tribes against each other. That could fuel blood feuds and further deepen the insecurity in South Waziristan, they said.

Rahimullah Yousafzai, a prominent journalist and expert on the Taliban, said he suspected the government was covertly backing local militants. The allegation was denied by the army, which said it had no part in the fighting.

Yousafzai said that artillery was reportedly being used against the foreign militants from South Waziristan's main town of Wana, and local tribesmen would not have access to such weaponry.

``It's a very dangerous game the government is playing, and it's local people who will suffer. Tribesmen still supporting the foreign militants will become desperate and do anything, even suicide bombings. They will have nowhere to go,'' he said.

Hundreds of Central Asian and Arab militants linked to al-Qaida fled to the semiautonomous region after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and forged alliances with local tribes. Other Uzbeks opposed to the regime of President Islam Karimov in their homeland have reportedly since joined them from Uzbekistan.

Pakistan, as part of its support of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, launched military operations in 2004 to wipe the foreign militants out. They succeeded in busting camps used by al-Qaida but suffered heavy casualties and failed to expel the foreign fighters.

More recently, Pakistan has cut deals with pro-Taliban militants and urged local tribal elders to police the region themselves. That's sparked concern that Taliban and other militants now have freer rein to launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan on U.S. and NATO forces. U.S. officials are also worried it has allowed al-Qaida to regroup.

Yousafzai said that while Arabs have stayed out of local affairs in Waziristan, Uzbek militants have become increasingly unpopular because of their disregard for tribal norms and criminality _ a disaffection Pakistan could be eager to exploit.

Talat Masood, a former Pakistani general, said this week's clashes showed that the government was not in control of the region, but the infighting could reduce the militants' ability to stage attacks against NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces across the border.