A Pakistani army cordon tightening around their mud-brick compounds, leaders of a tribe along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border say they are desperate to avoid bloodshed as a deadline to turn over al-Qaida suspects rapidly draws near.
Four elders of the Jani Khel tribe told The Associated Press they are ready to negotiate with the military, although the leaders insist they aren’t harboring foreign terrorists and their mountainous land is too forbidding for the likes of Osama bin Laden and his men.
The elders descended the rugged peaks of Shawal, in North Waziristan, to meet with AP this weekend and give their side of the conflict.
The government has barred journalists from entering the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan since a March crackdown on a suspected al-Qaida den, so the bearded old men traveled eight hours over dirt paths and rutted roads to reach Bannu, a town on the edge of the tribal belt.
Clad in sandals, traditional tunics and starched yellow and white turbans, the elders all swore they would turn over any terrorists they found.
“The government has put a huge number of troops on our land, and they tell us they are searching for al-Qaida, but we want to make clear that there are no al-Qaida in Shawal,” said Said Khan, one of 35 elders in the 30,000-strong Jani Khel tribe.
“If there are foreigners, we will turn them over. We cannot afford to punish all of our people to protect one or two outsiders.”
Pakistani troops have sealed the main routes in and out of Shawal, but they have not moved against the tribesmen. Fighting-age men in the region carry AK-47 machine-guns as a matter of routine, and many of the fortress-like compounds are stocked with mortars, grenades and rockets because of frequent inter-tribal clashes.
The Jani Khel are one of a dozen clans in the tribal belt, and their lands are among the least accessible. No Pakistani troops set foot in the region until 2002, and there are few roads, schools or medical facilities. Families are big, and most get by on about $20-$30 a month from farming or selling timber.
Even tribesmen find it impossible to spend the winter in the Shawal mountains, descending during the cold season to a town near Bannu.
April 20 deadline to hand over suspects
The government has shown little confidence in the tribal leaders’ pledges. North and South Waziristan areas are considered a possible hiding spot for bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahri, who have all but vanished since directing the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes against the United States.
Last week, 120-140 military vehicles and 4,000-6,000 troops moved into the Shawal region to put steel behind an April 20 deadline for the tribesmen to turn over terror suspects or face military action.
The ultimatum was given by the governor last week to a council of tribal elders. The elders say they will get back to authorities before the deadline, but no dates are set for talks.
Brig. Mahmood Shah, chief of security for the tribal regions, said military action is a possibility.
“We prefer a political solution, but at the same time, the threat of force is there and that is extremely important in the tribal areas,” he told AP from his office in Peshawar. “Negotiations, threats and military action all go hand-in-hand.”
The government fears some terror suspects who fled last month’s military offensive near Wana, in South Waziristan, may have headed to Shawal, about 25 miles to the north. They are also searching for Jani Khel tribesmen suspected of launching a March 18 rocket attack that killed four soldiers.
Sixty suspects were killed in the Wana sweep, along with at least 50 soldiers. More than 160 people were captured, but hundreds escaped. Pakistani officials originally believed al-Zawahri was at the site, and claim they injured an Uzbek with al-Qaida links.
Critics have accused Pakistan of bungling the operation. Shah acknowledged the men arrested in Wana did not appear to be al-Qaida heavyweights, and no Arabs were among those killed or captured.
Most of the foreign detainees were Chechen, Uzbek and Afghans who have been living in the tribal regions for years, some since the 1980s, when thousands of Muslims — including bin Laden — joined the U.S.-backed fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
American, Afghan and Pakistani officials say the Uzbek and Chechen men have been caught aiding the Taliban in attacks on coalition bases across the border, including the U.S. base at Shkin, Afghanistan, a few hundred yards from Shawal.
'Gift from the Americans'
The Jani Khel insist they don’t know of any foreign men on their territory, though they say other tribal lands were probably still home to a few hundred foreign fighters.
“These outsiders were a gift from the Americans. They were brought here by the Americans and when they arrived we were told they were honorable holy warriors,” said Walayat Khan, a Jani Khel businessman who hosted tribal leaders at his Bannu home on Saturday. “They’ve been here so long they have married into our society and they have fully integrated themselves into our culture.”
Indeed, some tribal elders said they had only the vaguest understanding of the relationship between bin Laden and Washington.
“When he first came to Afghanistan decades ago, all we knew was that bin Laden was a rich Arab who enjoyed the close friendship of the Americans,” said elder Taj Ali Khan. “I’m not sure what is the cause of the recent hostility between them.”
Shah said part of the government’s task is educating the tribesmen.
“We are explaining to them that these men are no longer holy warriors, but terrorist criminals,” he said.