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by Ashfaq Yusufzai

Taliban Attack Pakistan Troops to Avenge Red Mosque

(IPS) PESHAWAR -- The seriousness of the challenge to Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's authority in the remote tribal areas bordering Afghanistan was apparent this week when the Taliban captured 180 soldiers in two separate incidents.

On Thursday, the Taliban audaciously abducted more than 150 soldiers in the volatile South Waziristan Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs). And on Friday another 30 soldiers who were members of a convoy, were taken prisoner, a local journalist from Wana, South Waziristan, told IPS.

"You don't see any law enforcer in FATA, especially after sunset. The militants hold the real authority," said Zulfiqar Ali, who reports from the area and knows it well. He speculated that the fact that the militants could seize and hold such a large number of soldiers indicated their size and strength and said it was possible that the government had already lost control of the tribal areas.

Speaking wih IPS Qazi Hussain Ahmad, chief of the fundamentalist, Jamaat-i-Islami, told IPS that while Musharraf needed political support to win in elections mandated early next year, his close alliance with the United States and his role in the ‘war on terror' in Afghanistan had made him vulnerable, both politically and militarily.

"Following his moral defeat over the reinstatement of the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and the army raid on the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) Musharraf's war against the extremists in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the adjacent tribal areas may well prove to be the last nail in his coffin," said Ashraf Ali, a researcher at the University of Peshawar.

An uneasy truce between the authorities and Islamist fighters in the border areas was called off on Jul. 10 after the army stormed the Lal Masjid that had been taken over by pro-Taliban groups. Islamist fighters had launched a series of revenge attacks, including suicide bombings, on military targets in FATA and NWFP.

On Aug.9 militants abducted 16 security personnel from Bannu. Three days later, they beheaded one of the hostages and released a video-tape of the barbaric killing that was carried out by a child fighter, in a blatant show of disregard for human rights laws that prohibit the enlisting of child soldiers.

"Release of the horrible video footage of the abducted soldiers is meant to compel law enforcers to stay away from their fight with Musharraf," said Dr Said Alam Mahsud, an intellectual based in South Waziristan.

At the start of the U.S.-led war on terrorism in early 2002 Musharraf enjoyed support in the FATA. But this faded fast because of heavy casualties suffered by the local population in aerial attacks launched by the U.S. army from across the border in Afghanistan, and backed by the Pakistan army, said Rakhshanda Naz, resident director of the Aurat Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO).

She said that frightened locals have turned against the army since the attacks had targeted innocent women and children. U.S. forces claim that the Taliban, following their ouster from power in Kabul late 2001, had found shelter among pro-Taliban groups in the FATA and NWFP.

Islamist forces first flexed their muscle against Musharraf last November when they bombed a Pakistani army camp in Dargai, an NWFP town, killing 42 recruits.

That attack in October 2006 was a tit-for-tat response to the U.S. air strikes on a seminary in Damadola, Bajaur tribal agency, which left 80 students dead. In an earlier aerial attack on Bajaur, in January 2006, 18 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed triggering nation-wide protests and public anger.

"Such attacks tend to produce thousands of jihadists. Musharraf is a friend of the U.S. and so the enemy of the tribal population," Maulana Faqir Muhammad, a close associate of al-Qaeda second-in-command Dr. Aiman Al Zawahiri told IPS from an undisclosed location in Bajaur.

"It is a violation of human rights that the government kills innocent people," observed Kamran Arif, vice president of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). "It is only natural that people will react in FATA and NWFP. Musharraf himself has survived two (assassination) attacks. About 300 soldiers have been killed since the Red Mosque operation," he added.

The bloody end to the siege of the mosque, whose leaders had openly sympathized with the al-Qaeda, was a turning point for Musharraf. Weeks later, Pakistan's sacked chief justice Chaudhary, who had crisscrossed the country campaigning against his unfair ouster, was reinstated. On Aug. 23, Pakistan's top court ruled that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was free to return from exile in Saudi Arabia.

Sharif has said he will return on Sep. 10, but he stands to be arrested on arrival. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in several cases, including tax evasion and treason after the 1999 coup that saw Musharraf take over power.

The situation in the border areas seems to be tilting against Musharraf. "The endless string of suicide bombings on the army, policemen and pro-Musharraf politicians is a clear indication that he is losing control," Parveen Begum of the NGO AWAZ told IPS. She says that the reported beheadings of alleged U.S. spies by militants is part of the anti-Musharraf campaign.

"Even the political administrators of North and South Waziristan agencies are camped in Peshawar because of the lawlessness there," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain of the nationalist Awami National Party. He said the bombings of army and police convoys and the attacks on video shops and barbers' shops were a sure sign of control slipping from Musharraf's hands.

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Albion Monitor   September 4, 2007   (

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