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Pakistan: More Fighting As Army Shells Village Near Afghan Border

Soldiers in Waziristan near the Afghan border (file photo) (epa) Dozens of people have been fleeing a Pakistani village near the border with Afghanistan today in fear of fighting between government troops and pro-Taliban militants. Artillery barrages by the Pakistani army destroyed at least five buildings in Naurak after militants there late on March 7 ambushed the convoy of the top administrator for the tribal region of North Waziristan. Meanwhile, the U.S. military's Central Command chief, U.S. General John Abizaid, is in Pakistan today for talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in an effort to defuse tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.

PRAGUE, March 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The administrator of North Waziristan, Syed Zaheerul Islam, says he was not hurt when his convoy was ambushed late on March 7. But one of his bodyguards was shot dead.

Pakistani officials say their artillery barrages at Naurak targeted suspected hideouts of pro-Taliban fighters, killing at least four suspected militants.

"Pakistan is openly critical of Afghanistan's relationship with India. And also, now they are accusing Afghanistan of supporting separatists and rebellious movements inside [the Pakistani province of] Balochistan."

But Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL today that his organization is hearing from displaced villagers who say that civilians are being indiscriminately targeted by the Pakistani army.

Abuse By Pakistani Soldiers?

"The Pakistani government has essentially banned all outside eyes [from monitoring a series of clashes that began last week]. So we don't really know what's going on," he said. "But [Pakistan's army has] a long history of collective punishment against whole communities when they get engaged in hostilities with rebels in the Northwest Frontier Province, or in Waziristan -- or with Taliban or Al-Qaeda. They often have a 'take no prisoners' mentality."

Pro-Taliban fighters who controlled North Waziristan's nearby administrative headquarters of Miran Shah during the weekend have dispersed into the rugged mountains and into villages along the border with Afghanistan under pressure from government air strikes. Pakistani army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan says at least 100 suspected militants are thought to have been killed.

Ian Kemp, an independent defense analyst in London, tells RFE/RL that the seizure of Marin Shah by militants suggests that Pakistan's army has less control over security in the tribal regions than Islamabad is willing to admit.

"I certainly think that's the case. Given the difficult nature of the terrain, it's very easy for Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces to concentrate in the mountains for a particular operation -- whether it is [an ambush or] a raid on a town or a village. So they can concentrate in strength -- probably of a couple of hundred [fighters] -- and then overwhelm the Pakistani security forces in a particular location. And then, when Pakistani forces move in for the counterattack -- relying upon helicopter gunships and fighter jets to drop bombs -- then the opposition forces can fade away back into the mountains."

Thousands of people have been fleeing the area around Miran Shah during a week of fighting that began when the Pakistani army attacked a nearby camp suspected of sheltering Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Kemp says it is not a coincidence that government troops launched the attack just two days before a visit to Islamabad by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Planned To Coincide With Bush Visit

"There's no doubt whatsoever that the timing of the operation was intended to deflect criticism from President Bush during his visit to Pakistan," he said. "The American authorities [and], to a lesser extent NATO, and certainly the Afghan government itself, have been highly critical of the porous nature of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ever since the United States overthrew the Taliban, they have been urging the Pakistani authorities to do more to tighten up security [in order] to prevent Taliban and Al-Qaeda [forces] from crossing the border almost at will."

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said during a visit to London on March 7 that Afghan forces need to do more on their side of the border to stop militants from using the area as a sanctuary.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai today responded to criticisms from Islamabad by saying that finger pointing does not help either country in the fight against terrorism.

"I wish our brother in neighboring Pakistan, his excellency, the president of Pakistan [Musharraf], would have more serious, more active, cooperation [with Afghanistan] in the fight against terrorism," Karzai said. "Cooperation will be for the good of both countries and the rest of the world."

Pakistan Unhappy With Indian-Afghan Relations

RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi says Pakistan's concerns about improved relations between New Delhi and Kabul also are a factor in the diplomatic row.

"Observers view the relationships between Islamabad and Kabul as the lowest they have been since the demise of the Taliban [regime] in late 2001," he said. "Afghanistan is accusing Pakistan of either supporting the neo-Taliban and other militants or, at least, not doing enough to stop the infiltrations. On the other hand, Pakistan is openly critical of Afghanistan's relationship with India. And also, now they are accusing Afghanistan of supporting separatists and rebellious movements inside [the Pakistani province of] Balochistan."

Pakistan's private Geo-TV channel quotes Musharraf as telling Abizaid that Afghanistan's accusations against Pakistan could hamper counterterrorism efforts along the border.

Major General Sultan expressed hope that the meeting would help defuse tensions and bring an end to the finger pointing. Sultan says the meeting also focused on ways to improve intelligence sharing between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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