Clashes as Afghan militants enter Pakistan

Posted in Pakistan , Afghanistan | 12-Jan-09 | Author: Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Pir Z| Source: International Herald Tribune

Armed Pakistani people patrol on the streets near the border of the tribal district of Mohmand Agency in October, 2008. Hundreds of foreign militants attacked Pakistani forces near the border with Afghanistan, sparking clashes that left six soldiers and 40 militants dead, the military said Sunday.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Hundreds of Taliban militants poured into northwestern Pakistan in a large frontal attack on a paramilitary base late Saturday and Sunday that left at least 40 militants and 6 Pakistani soldiers dead, according to Pakistani security officials.

The attack, on an outpost of the Frontier Corps paramilitary force in the Mohmand district, appeared to be the heaviest assault on Pakistani troops in months. And in a reversal of usual patterns, it involved a large number of Taliban forces from Afghanistan attacking into Pakistan, signaling coordination among militants on both sides of the border.

At the same time, a separate and equally deadly battle played out just 60 miles to the south. Gangs of Sunnis and Shiites fought each other, rampaging through the villages of the Hangu district over the weekend, destroying dozens of homes and leaving at least 40 people dead between the rival groups, according to reports from authorities carried by Pakistani news media and accounts from local residents. Hundreds of Taliban fighters rushed in to support Sunni gangs, as government attack helicopters hovered overhead, trying to intimidate gunmen into withdrawing.

"Both sides are trying to overrun each other's villages," said Abdul Rehman, a Sunni and resident of Hangu. He estimated that 60 people had died and said the incoming Taliban fighters appeared eager to drive Shiites out of the region. "They seem to be bent on settling this Shia question for good."

Taken together, the battles underscored the persistent lawlessness in Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan, where Taliban militants and other warlords have tightened their grip despite the Pakistani military's attempts to make inroads in the past year.

The assault in Mohmand was particularly troubling. In the past, militants have often pulled away from high concentrations of Pakistani troops, only to return later. But this time, an estimated 600 Taliban fighters directly assaulted a paramilitary base at Mamad Gatt, according to Frontier Corps officials.

The western tribal areas have been a haven for Pakistani Taliban forces who stage attacks in Afghanistan, and they have been a focus for American diplomats, who have pressed the Pakistani government to do more to disrupt the flow.

But this attack involved mostly Taliban from the Afghan side of the border, who flooded into the mountainous area and joined with Pakistani fighters in the assault.

Armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns, the militants swarmed the Mamad Gatt fort on Saturday night and fought heavily through the morning, according to one Frontier Corps officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information. By Sunday afternoon, he said, most militants had left, though there were still scattered skirmishes.

The battle took place in a district formally known as the Mohmand Agency, one of seven semiautonomous agencies along the border. Mohmand is northwest of Peshawar, the frontier hub city of three million that has come under increasing pressure from Taliban encroachment.

The Frontier Corps' estimate of 40 dead militants could not be independently confirmed. According to some local reports, a number of Pakistani soldiers were captured, in addition to the six killed and seven wounded.

According to a Pashto-language television channel, one Taliban fighter who was killed was a midlevel commander in his 20s, Muslim Khan, also known as Garang, who was responsible for detaining a reporter and photographer for The New York Times in Mohmand in July.

The fighting over the weekend also followed the Pakistani military's decision in late December to move about 5,000 troops abruptly from deployments in western Pakistan eastward to locations that would allow the military to defend the border with India more quickly if armed conflict broke out. Pakistani officials say more than 100,000 troops remain in the west.

The separate violence, in the Hangu district, involved a flaring of sectarian tensions after Shiites protested that a curfew forbade them from turning out for an important religious procession.

According to local residents, a large number of Shiites who live on the road from Hangu to Kohat marched toward Hangu to confront authorities about the curfew. Fighting then erupted with Sunnis who live in the area.

Hundreds of Taliban fighters — some in pickups with truck-bed-mounted machine guns — flooded into Hangu from the neighboring Orakzai district prepared to fight on the side of the Sunnis, despite reports that an assembly of local tribal elders had agreed to a cease-fire on Sunday. Sunni guerrillas fired on Shiite enclaves with mortars and reportedly seized a Shiite mosque and madrasa.

The Taliban from Orakzai Agency are under the command of Hakimullah Mehsud, a lieutenant of the warlord Baitullah Mehsud. Most of the Sunnis in Hangu belong to the same tribe as the Orakzai fighters.

The Shiites got help from members of the Turi tribe from another adjoining district, Kurram Agency, some residents said.

"Our force consists of young and inexperienced boys who are educated and as such don't know the art of fighting heavily armed Taliban," said one Shiite resident, Muzaffar Khan.