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PAKISTAN: Taliban Move In On Peshawar?

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Jul 21 2008 (IPS) - Hundreds of families have left posh Hayatabad Township amid escalating fear that this Pakistani border city is set to fall into the hands of the Taliban.

Paramilitary forces in the Khyber Agency. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Paramilitary forces in the Khyber Agency. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

"We left our home in Hayatabad because of the military operation against Mangal Bagh (end-June to early July)," says Asim Gul, a pharmacist who shifted his family to his village in Mardan district, North West Frontier Province (NWFP)

Mangal Bagh is the religious-cum-militant leader of the outlawed Laskhar-e-Islam (army of Islam), a paramilitary group in the Khyber Agency, in adjoining Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The lawless tribal belt is sandwiched between the NWFP and the porous Afghan border.

Pakistani army rockets targeted the headquarters of the militant group in the town of Bara, 5 kms from Peshawar.

The immediate reason for the military operation was the Taliban’s gradual advance on Peshawar. There have been reports of violence and destruction, and kidnappings. Shops selling CDs and DVDs in the centre of the city have been firebombed.

Last month, masked, armed men who claimed they were members of the Lashkar-e-Islam abducted 16 Christians attending a meeting. However, Mangal Bagh immediately disowned the incident saying they did not have his permission.

Both the NWFP police chief and top administrator have issued warnings that unless the government takes decisive action, Peshawar would be under Taliban control. The provincial government, led by the secular Awami National Party that came to power in the February 2008 elections, has been pursuing a policy of dialogue with the Taliban.

Gul says a rocket fired from Khyber Agency landed near his house on Jun. 26, panicking the entire locality. "We had sleepless nights in Hayatabad. Now, my family is feeling well in Mardan. My children and wife insist on staying there," he told IPS.

Hayatabad is an up market suburb of Peshawar, a city of three million. "About 200 families have abandoned their homes temporarily in Hayatabad," says Mazhar Durrani, president of the Hayatabad Property Dealers Association. He confirms that people are moving out since the launch of the operation and the fear of "Talibanisation".

Sajjad Ahmed, lecturer in political science, says the Taliban have infiltrated every city in NWFP’s 24 districts, except the capital Peshawar. "At least 13 schools for girls were bombed in Swat," he says. "Occupation of Peshawar means occupation of the whole province," he asserts.

According to an article in the July issue of the Middle East Media Research Institute journal, the Taliban – there are several factions – have been present in all the surrounding regions since June – namely Khyber Agency, Darra Adam Khel, Mohmand Agency, Shabqadar, Michni, Mardan, and Frontier Region Peshawar.

Last week, Baitullah Mahsud of the pro-Taliban, Tehreek Taliban Pakistan, called on the NWFP government to resign within five days.

The threat was issued after the Hangu police in the NWFP seized a few Taliban activists. Later the Taliban besieged the local police station and killed 17 personnel of the Frontier Constabulary.

The local police and paramilitary forces are no match for the Islamic fighters. Some 500 policemen have died in militancy-related incidents over the past year. Not one of Peshawar’s 30 police stations stays open after 8 p.m. Police in rural Peshawar have stopped night patrols after a patrol was blown up in a grenade attack on May 29.

The situation has worsened because of lack of coordination between the federal and the provincial governments.

"The operation against Mangal Bagh was handled exclusively by the federal government. The NWFP was not part of it," says Mian Iftikhar Hussain, provincial information minister. "The situation is bad and we are trying to end militancy through talks," he insists.

"The federal government should take the NWFP along as far as talks with the Taliban are concerned. The situation in NWFP is linked with the situation in FATA," he adds. He confirms that 20 suspected Taliban who were arrested, are being investigated.

"We have left our house, because there is constant firing and the children get frightened," says Rasool Jan, a college teacher, who moved his family to his village in Bannu district. Jan believes the Taliban are at the gates of Peshawar.

Before the U.S. launched its ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan and evicted the Taliban from Kabul in end-2001, the Islamic fighters had no presence either in FATA or in the NWFP.

"The federal government, which directly controls FATA, has shown no serious efforts to contain insurgency there. In the process, the Taliban and militants have established permanent sanctuaries in the NWFP," says Ashraf Ali, a researcher on the Taliban at the University of Peshawar.

Rahim Gul, who has lived in Hayatabad for 20 years, says the town is in turmoil. "We deserted our house because, sometime, rockets fired from the Khyber Agency went right over our houses. My children kept crying. I shifted them to Charsadda, my home district," he told IPS.

The numbers of internally displaced people in the FATA and NWFP keep rising. Hundreds of families from North and South Waziristan have rented homes in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts, NWFP. Last year, people fled scenic Swat district to escape militant attacks and counter-attacks by Pakistani security forces.

"We are afraid the province (NWFP) is fast moving into the hands of militants," says Shakoor Khan of Tajabad area, adjacent to Hayatabad.

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