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Deadly Violence Mars Protest In Northwestern Pakistan

Three people were killed and at least 10 others in clashes between Pakistani security forces and protesters in the country’s northwestern tribal region, the military and eyewitnesses say.​

Details of the May 26 incident in North Waziristan district remain murky.

Witnesses told RFE/RL that at least 20 people, including a lawmaker, were injured after security forces “opened fire” on peaceful protesters seeking to join a protest against what they called the military’s heavy-handed methods.

But the military said that a group led by two members of parliament attacked a security post, wounding five soldiers. It said troops responded to “direct firing” on the post, killing three attackers and wounding 10 others.

The two lawmakers -- Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir -- were among the founders of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) civil rights group that has been a thorn in the side of the military with regular sit-ins and protests denouncing alleged military abuses.

The PTM, whose support base is mostly among the Pashtun ethnic minority, has been peaceful since its founding in early 2018.

International rights groups say authorities have banned peaceful rallies organized by the PTM and some of its leading members have been arbitrarily detained and prevented from traveling within the country.

A curfew was imposed in the area where the violence took place.

Residents of Datta Khel, a small town in North Waziristan, launched a sit-in late on May 25, accusing security forces of “persecuting” and “torturing” civilians during a recent search operation targeting suspected militants.

Eyewitnesses said that dozens of tribal elders and leaders of the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM) were on their way to the sit-in on the morning of May 26 when troops stopped them at a checkpoint and prevented them from reaching the protest site.

As more protesters arrived at the area, the “security forces opened fire at them,” according to the witnesses.

Dawar was among the protesters and told RFE/RL by phone that he was “slightly hurt.”

Wazir was taken to an “unknown location” by security forces along with a tribal elder identified as Gul Alam, residents said.

In a statement, the military said that a group led by Dawar and Wazir assaulted the Kharqamar checkpost, adding that “they wanted to exert pressure” for the release of a “suspected terrorists’ facilitator” who had been arrested.

Troops manning the post “exercised maximum restraint in the face of provocation and direct firing on the post,” it said, adding that five soldiers were injured.

The military said that three attackers also lost their lives in the shooting while the 10 others who sustained injuries were evacuated to an army hospital for treatment.

Wazir was arrested along with eight other people and Dawar “is at-large after inciting the crowd,” the statement said.

The PTM has denounced the army's heavy-handed operations in the militancy-hit tribal regions.

The group has called for judicial probes into those killed by the military and campaigned for ending enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and discrimination against Pashtuns.

Pakistan's impoverished tribal areas became a front line in the battle against extremist groups after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda took refuge in the region.

The region has been the scene of deadly Pakistani army operations, U.S. drone attacks, and militant attacks.

Pashtuns make up the majority of recruits and members of Pakistani-based militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Pakistani Taliban.

But PTM supporters say civilians have borne the brunt of the violence, and claim Pashtuns have been the targets of the army and the ISI, two powerful bodies that have an oversized role in the country.

Pakistan’s government and military have said they are taking steps to address the protesters’ demands.