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Pakistan to arm village militias in tribal territories

Sunday, February 22, 2009 | 5:16 p.m. CST

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Authorities in a Pakistani border province plan to arm villagers with 30,000 rifles and set up an elite police unit to protect a region increasingly besieged by Taliban and al-Qaida militants, an official said Sunday.

Stiffer action in the North West Frontier Province could help offset American concern that a peace deal being negotiated in the Swat valley, a Taliban stronghold in the province, could create a haven for Islamist insurgents only 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Pakistani capital.

Village militias backed by the United States have been credited with reducing violence in Iraq. Washington is paying for a similar initiative in Afghanistan.

The United States is already spending millions of dollars to train and equip Pakistani forces in the rugged region near the Afghan border, but there was no sign it was involved in the militia plan. A U.S. Embassy spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Saturday he will try to "remove the apprehensions of the world community" about the Swat deal when he meets U.S. officials in Washington next week, state-run media reported.

But it was unclear if Sunday's announcement had the backing of national leaders or the powerful army — or if handing out more guns in an already heavily–armed society was wise.

Mahmood Shah, a former head of security for Pakistan's tribal regions, said arming civilians could trigger civil war in the northwest, where tribal and political tension is at fever pitch.

Shah said authorities should focus on bolstering existing security forces.

"This is Pakistan, not Iraq or Afghanistan. There is complete anarchy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is not the case here," he said. "It is not going to help."

Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister of the provincial government, said authorities would distribute the guns only among "peaceful groups and individuals" so they could help police to guard their villages.

Officials would consult with local police chiefs before handing out the arms and would take them back if they were not used against "terrorists and troublemakers," Hoti's office said in a written statement.

Hoti said the guns were on hand, having been seized from "terrorists and anti-state elements." He said the province would meet the $40 million bill for the elite provincial police unit of 2,500 officers.

"The purpose of setting up this force is to combat terrorism and extremism effectively," he said.

The militia plan raises doubts about the coherence of Pakistani efforts to counter Taliban groups who have seized growing pockets of the northwest, forged links with al-Qaida and carried out a blur of suicide bombings.

Pakistani officials have encouraged residents to establish militias in the semiautonomous tribal areas sandwiched between North West Frontier Province and the Afghan border.

The pro-Western central government says it will come down hard on groups who refuse to renounce violence and stop supporting cross-border terrorism in return for reconciliation.

Federal officials insisted they have not handed out any weapons in the tribal areas, and appeared to be caught off guard by Sunday's announcement.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said it had not been consulted about giving weapons to village militias. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, supposedly in charge of national law and order issues, also was unaware of the plan.

The provincial government did not say when the weapons would be handed out, or if villagers would be armed in the Swat valley, where security forces and Taliban militants are observing a week-old cease-fire while seeking a peace accord.

Earlier Sunday, Taliban gunmen abducted a senior government official and six of his security guards in Swat, demonstrating their unbroken hold in the valley, where they have defied an army offensive, beheaded political opponents and torched some 200 girls' schools.

A Taliban spokesman said the official, Khushal Khan, would be freed "soon," but that his abduction was a warning to the provincial authorities, who he alleged had arrested two Taliban members in violation of the cease-fire.

"We wanted to show the government that we can also taken action against it," spokesman Muslim Khan said.

He declined to comment on the village militia plan.

The provincial government has sent a hard-line cleric to try to persuade the Swat Taliban to renounce violence in return for the introduction of elements of Islamic law.

Officials say the legal concessions meet long-standing demands for speedy justice in Swat and fall far short of the harsh version of Islamic law favored by Taliban militants.

 


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