Pakistanis strike back against Taliban

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan| Suicide attacks and bombings have driven some neighborhoods to take up arms in the city best known as the gateway to terrorist hide-outs in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Budabar is one example of a Peshawar neighborhood with its own squad of “Guardian Angels.” But unlike the U.S. vigilante group known for its red berets and armed only with martial-arts skills, the Pakistanis make their rounds with Kalashnikov rifles.

When the Taliban blew up one of the government’s girls schools, a member of Peshawar’s provincial assembly called a meeting of more than 200 elders.

“The school bombing made us realize how close to home the Taliban had come,” said Daud Sadiq Khan, 26, who picks up its rifle to go on patrol each night. “That’s when we realized that we had to fight back.”

Operating from hide-outs in the rugged tribal areas on the outskirts of Peshawar, the Taliban and al Qaeda have unleashed a nightmare of bombings, beheadings and girls-school burnings throughout Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.

But the Aug. 25 attack in the neighborhood of about 1,000 families marked the first time terrorists had targeted a school inside Peshawar itself.

Explosives were planted in the school building, which housed almost 1,200 students and was the only girls school in the area. All 26 rooms, along with office records and 16 computers, were destroyed when the explosives were detonated.

“We began patrolling the area at night,” said Khushdil Khan, a deputy speaker in the regional parliament. “Every evening from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., almost a hundred men from our area can be seen on the streets.”

Such citizen efforts have become a matter of routine in neighborhoods in and near Peshawar.

Peshawar-based journalist Shafiq Khan said the Taliban have come closer than ever before. “They have become strong in almost all areas surrounding Peshawar, such as Orakzai agency, Mohmand agency and Khyber agency,” he said, referring to three of Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

“Even within Peshawar, some areas have become no-go areas. Certain reports state that they’ve relocated a commander from Orakzai, Hakimullah Mehsud, to Peshawar, and he is leading the operation from around the city,” Shafiq Khan said.

Retired Brig. Gen. Mehmood Shah confirmed that even within Peshawar, certain places have become no-go areas.

“I live here and have been living in Peshawar all my life, but there are some areas I will not go to,” he said. “One example is Ring Road.”

Ring Road is one of Peshawar’s main highways, which houses multiple markets and transport companies. It was at a transport terminal there that insurgents torched 160 vehicles on Dec. 7, including dozens of Humvees destined for allied forces in Afghanistan. It was one of the boldest attacks so far on supply lines for NATO forces.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of Central Command, told a regional security conference in Bahrain on Sunday that recent attacks on convoys of U.S. supplies bound for Afghanistan from Pakistan were forcing the United States and its allies to consider other routes.

“The supply-line issues in Pakistan are quite serious,” Gen. Petraeus said. “There have been already various initiatives that obviously take on new urgency to look to the [the nations of Central Asia] for the purchase of … materials and perhaps the transit for some.”

Days after the attack, the mood on Ring Road remains somber. During daylight, the road is dotted with only a few vehicles. After evening prayers, the road is almost empty, as many prefer taking a detour rather than traveling on it. The restaurants and markets located on the road have their shutters down, and only occasionally does a wanderer make his way there.

Naseer Khan, 59, no longer enjoys coming to work. “Something is always going wrong here,” he said. “I pray to Allah every morning when I am leaving my house because I never know if I will be able to go back.”

Such tales of lament and woe are common in Peshawar. Some have lost their siblings. Others have lost their spouses or parents.

More than 1,500 civilians have been killed by terrorists in Pakistan this year, many in suicide attacks in and near Peshawar.

Noor Muhammed, 35, lost his boss of 17 years in a bomb blast in 2006. “He got off the car,” he said, referring to his boss, who was working as deputy inspector general in Peshawar.

“He was heading off to check the security arrangements at a Shi’ite place of worship when suddenly a loud explosion was heard,” Mr. Muhammed said.

Mr. Muhammed was also thrown back by the impact of the explosion, but he was able to run toward his boss,who was lying flat on the ground. “When I picked him up, he was dead. I keep reliving that scene every time I leave my house to go to work.”

Majid-u-Rehman, 30, a police constable on duty at the Kissa Khawani Bazaar - the scene of a bombing earlier this month that killed at least 20 people - said he was not worried about future attacks.

“I believe death will come when it will come,” he said.

Ali Hussain, 50, who was badly injured in the recent blast, also has a similar point of view. “I want to live to build and rebuild whatever the terrorists have destroyed,” he said. “As long as I live, I will continue to build back.”

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