Azam Warsak cleared of Uzbeks

10 Apr 2007


WANA, April 9: Tribal volunteers supported by native militants have cleared the Azam Warsak area of Uzbek fighters and hoisted their flags after establishing their control. An official said that around 2,000 tribal volunteers and militants allied with commander Maulvi Nazir entered Azam Warsak on Monday morning and hoisted white flags.

“There was no resistance,” South Waziristan administrator Hussainzada Khan told Dawn. “It was a problem area but it’s clear now,” he said.

Mr Hussainzada said overnight clashes between tribal volunteers and Uzbek militants and their supporters had left eight Uzbeks dead. The bodies were retrieved on Monday, he said.

There was no independent confirmation of the claim. Telephone link between the restive tribal region and the rest of the country was severed in December when militants took away equipment from the only telephone exchange operating in Wana. Authorities say they plan to restore the phone links but the prevailing security situation has impeded their efforts.

The government has put the death toll of Uzbek militants since late March at more than 200 but observers, including some government officials, caution that the figure could be lower.

Estimates vary about the number of militants from the Central Asian republics in the region, ranging from a few hundred to over 1,000.

Mr Hussainzada said the Uzbek militants were on the retreat and the tribal volunteers were trying to chase them out of Ziarah Leetha on the border with Afghanistan.

An official, requesting not to be named, said the retreating Uzbeks had snatched weapons from a camp operated by the Hezb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar in Azam Warsak.

Mr Hussainzada said the tribal volunteers had seized computers and ammunition from the Uzbek hideouts in Azam Warsak and other areas.

He confirmed that paramilitary forces had been ordered to take up positions on strategic hilltops in Shin Warsak and Azam Warsak to secure the area from falling back into the hands of Uzbeks and their supporters.

The government has so far denied any involvement of security forces in the tribal campaign but reports continue to emerge about paramilitary and army soldiers killed in fighting in the region.

Officials have been claiming that the few casualties the security forces had suffered were caused by mortar shellings and during the mop-up operation.

But some local tribesmen insist that security personnel are fighting alongside the tribal volunteers and militants to reinforce their positions.

Some officials acknowledge that the Uzbek militants are battle-hardened and too tough to be dislodged by tribal volunteers.

Abdul Sami Paracha adds from Kohat: Six bodies of troops killed in clashes with foreign militants in Azam Warsak were sent to their hometowns from the Combined Military Hospital in Kohat during the past two days. The bodies had been brought to Kohat from Wana in helicopters and sent to their cities in coffins wrapped in national flags.

The bodies of Naik Saadat, Sepoy Salik Shah and Lance Naik Zameen Hussain of the Frontier Constabulary were sent to Peshawar, and those of Havaldar Shah Nawaz, Naik Safeer Ahmed and Lance Naik Wakil Ahmed of the army to their hometowns, where they were buried with military honours.

The South Waziristan administrator said there were no reports about the whereabouts of Uzbek militant leader Tahir Yaldashev or a group of tribal militant commanders supporting him.

A senior officer who didn’t want to be named told Dawn on Monday night that the army had not vacated its bases established in the area over the past five years and in some areas it had constructed permanent facilities in the remote region.

The military has not moved out although it was one of the main conditions in the peace agreement reached in the area, the official said.

He said the tribal Lashkars which had so far killed dozens of Uzbeks and their sympathisers were fully backed by the military. The military was providing them air support, arms, ammunition and expenses and also helping them in identifying hideouts and training camps with an advanced tracking system.

He disclosed that the army was also providing manpower to the Lashkars in areas where the tribesmen faced strong resistance and lost men in fighting.

In reply to a question, he said: “The Taliban, many tribesmen and the foreigners still consider the Pakistan army and the United States forces as their main enemies and whenever they get a chance they attack them with impunity.” He said dozens of troops had been killed and injured since the tribesmen launched the offensive against the aliens.

AFP adds: The tribal volunteers were carrying out house-to-house search for militants and securing other areas, an official said.

In a separate clash with militants, a tribal elder and a deputy were killed late on Sunday near Wana, he added.