MIRANSHAH: Some of the world’s most feared fighters are quietly slipping away from a Pakistani tribal region ahead of a long-rumoured military operation, raising questions about the effectiveness of such intervention.
The exodus from the mountainous North Waziristan district on the Afghan border began in late May following Pakistani air strikes, locals have told AFP.
But it has been hastened by the Taliban’s all-night siege of Karachi airport this week.
On Wednesday night two US drone strikes hit the region killing at least 16 in the first such attack this year, fuelling suspicion of coordination between the two countries, with Islamabad’s patience for talks seemingly exhausted.
But as pressure builds for a fuller response to the airport assault, residents and officials in Miranshah said the majority of foreign and local fighters had already left. “Most of them have gone deep into the mountains towards the Afghan border,” a senior security official told AFP.
The locals said militant groups were also seen escaping from villages that are a known hub of the dreaded Haqqani network.
Residents saw foreign militants leaving the Machis Camp and Data Khel village near Miranshah, as well as the villages of Musaki, Hurmaz, Hesso Khel and Api.
The fighters included Chechens, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks and Uighurs, residents and officials said.
Married into the local population, some have erected mud houses in small villages among the area’s rugged mountains.
Others “have rented houses and rooms here but they have now left towards the Afghan border”, a grocery shop owner in Miranshah bazaar told AFP. Another resident in Miranshah estimated that more than 80 percent of local and foreign fighters have left North Waziristan. Government representatives also began holding talks two weeks ago with a grand jira, warning them to hand over foreigners in the area or face severe consequences.
“Tribesmen are against war, they want to solve this conflict with talks and according to tribal traditions and that’s why we have formed a peace jirga,” jirga chief Sher Mohammed told AFP.
Residents said some jirga members last week made announcements from mosque loudspeakers in several villages asking foreign fighters to leave the area. They also made those under their command hoist Pakistani flags to demonstrate their loyalty and ward off aerial attacks.
Most areas along the border are not well demarcated, which allows militants to escape into Afghanistan.
“They have moved towards Shawal and Birmal,” an intelligence official said, referring to villages in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province.
A second security official said: “It is good that they (fighters) are leaving. We hope that tribesmen will not allow them to come and settle here again.
“In case of any military operation, we will face less resistance,” he added.
Residents said they have seen less activity of the feared Haqqani fighters in recent weeks. “They are also disappearing, probably they have gone to Khost, Paktia or Paktika,” one resident in Miranshah told AFP, naming Afghan border provinces.
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