National Security

Pakistani tribesmen, with government support, attack Taliban extremists

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani tribesmen, enraged by a suicide bombing of a mosque in their district, organized a traditional militia and attacked Taliban extremists this weekend — an action that government officials welcomed and western allies are likely to endorse.

Locals raised a "lashkar" or traditional militia in the Upper Dir district, which is next to the Swat valley, where the Pakistani army is battling Taliban, after a suicide bomber struck a mosque during the Friday weekly prayers, killing at least 40 people.

The development, another sign of the Pakistani public's decisive turn against Islamic militants in recent weeks, could boost the country's war against armed extremists.

Experts have long said that the fierce tribal traditions of the ethic Pashtun people, who live in the northwest of the country, constitute the best response to the insurgents, although the strategy has largely eluded Pakistan since 9/11.

After Swat, the army is set to mount an offensive in Waziristan, which lies along the Afghan border and is the base for Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In Waziristan, a sympathetic tribal uprising may be the key to success.

In the backlash that began Saturday, fighters in the Doog Darra part of Upper Dir, said they had killed at least 11 Taliban. Residents said the lashkar was closing in on three villages late Sunday, where they said the militants are holed up. It was unclear how many of the estimated 200 Taliban had remained in the area.

With more than 30 villages joining force, militia leaders decided to go after the known strongholds of the Taliban, who had been living in five villages nearby for several months. One militia member, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, claimed that the anti-Taliban force was over a thousand strong and armed with "heavy" weapons. Government officials estimated that several hundred had taken up arms.

"The most important thing is to mobilize the people of the area (the north west), restore their trust," said Najmuddin Khan, a government minister from Dir. "Then, there would be no need to use the army. We'd take care of the problem ourselves."

Pakistan has mounted multiple military offensives against the Taliban in the North West Frontier Province, but they were carried out half-heartedly and lost the confidence of the local people. The army has also failed repeatedly to come to the aid of tribal lashkars that have tried to fight the Taliban themselves, most recently in Buner district just two months ago. The army's current operation in Swat appears to be more serious, though many locals remain skeptical.

Mehmood Shah, an analyst who was previously a senior government official for the tribal territory, the lawless strip of land that runs along the Afghan border, said the government must not try to organize lashkars, as that would destroy their credibility.

"In our tribal areas, I think the people will themselves stand up," said Shah. "They are the ones who have been injured most by the activities of the extremists."

While Upper Dir is not part of the tribal area, its people are similarly independent, with most men keeping weapons at home - to defend their families in long-running blood feuds, among other reasons. In other places, locals have cowered after suicide bombings, but in Upper Dir, this latest attack fired up the population.

The blast at the mosque was only the latest a sign of the brutality and strength of the Taliban. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to a police emergency call center in Islamabad Saturday, killing two officers on duty. Greater loss of life was only averted because he was shot before he could enter the building.

Also on Saturday, militants ambushed a police convoy ferrying prisoners, in the Malakand district just south of Dir, and killed two prominent pro-Taliban clerics. The two men were being taken to jail in a police van when the convoy came under a bomb and gun assault, which also killed one guard and injured five others. The motive was unknown. Analysts pointed out that the strike, at 5 a.m., probably required inside knowledge.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)

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