Pakistan: Uzbek Al-Qaeda militants and pro-government tribesmen in northwest Pakistan fought pitched battles that left at least 46 people dead including four children, officials said on 20 March.
Heavy exchanges of rocket and mortar fire rang out for a second day around Kalusha town in the mountainous tribal region of South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, security officials said.
The fighting started after ex-Taliban commander Mullah Nazir, who backs President Pervez Musharraf’s moves to expel foreign fighters from the troubled area, ordered followers of Uzbek militant Tahir Yuldashev to disarm.
Yuldashev, the head of a group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was sentenced to death in absentia for bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Security officials say he had links to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
A mortar round hit a group of private school students who had been left outside the town by a bus driver because of the violence. Four were killed and 27 were wounded, the security officials said on condition of anonymity.
33 of Yuldashev’s supporters were killed and 22 were detained, the officials said, while nine local tribesmen including some of Nazir’s men also died, the officials said.12 seriously wounded civilians, all women and children, have been evacuated by helicopter to hospital in the northwestern city of Peshawar, they said.
Military spokesman major general Waheed Arshad said that he had reports that “around 30 people have been killed in clashes between local tribesmen and militants” but that the toll could rise.
Residents said tribesmen told the foreign insurgents on 20 March to lay down their arms by midnight or be killed, while announcements over mosque loudspeakers urged locals to be ready for more fighting.
Meanwhile hundreds of Uzbek militants and their supporters blocked the road from Wana, the main city in South Waziristan, to the town of Angoor Adda in order to “show their strength against their rivals,” officials said.
The local administration gave them a 48-hour ultimatum to end the blockade otherwise military action would be started against them, the officials said.
Arshad said the army did not intend to step in.
The fighting ended a ceasefire negotiated about two weeks ago after 19 people died in fierce gunbattles between Yuldashev’s supporters and tribesmen in the nearby town of Azam Warsak.
Yuldashev and his men were among thousands of militants who fled the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 and sought shelter with ethnic Pashtun tribesmen in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt along the border.
Pakistan has signed controversial peace deals with elders and militants in the South and North Waziristan regions after military offensives against Taliban and Al-Qaeda members, including Uzbeks.