- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

WANA, Pakistan — Pakistani troops hunting for terrorists yesterday in a remote tribal region along the border with Afghanistan killed 11 persons who were riding in a minibus that failed to stop at a rural checkpoint, an army spokesman said.

Gen. Shaukat Sultan said troops opened fire on the minibus after someone fired on the paramilitary forces at a roadblock in Zeri Noor, a village just outside of Wana, the main town in tribal South Waziristan.

Counterterrorism operations there earlier this week netted 25 suspects. Sixteen people were arrested.

The deaths were sure to raise the anger of fiercely independent tribal leaders already enraged by the presence of troops in their territory.

Residents said they were outraged by the shootings, and disputed government claims that someone in the bus fired first.

“Innocent people were killed in this operation. It was a civilian vehicle and the army is at fault,” said Zia Uddin, a 36-year-old school teacher.

Troops increased their presence Friday in Wana, 190 miles west of the capital, Islamabad, in part to provide additional security against religious violence during the Shi’ite Muslim Muharram holiday.

Yesterday, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a Shi’ite mosque in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to the capital. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing the attacker and injuring two persons, Gen. Sultan said.

Muharram, which starts in March, marks a month when Shi’ites mourn the 7th century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of Islam’s prophet Muhammad.

Pakistani authorities stepped up security at airports nationwide to the highest level yesterday in anticipation of Muharram. They said the move was not linked to the counterterror activities along the border, and that there was no specific threat.

In the minibus shooting, witness Allah Dad said the vehicle was filled mostly with Afghan refugees on their way to the border. A taxi driving near the minibus also was hit and the driver killed, Mr. Dad said.

“There is a lot of tension in the area and a lot of troops,” he said. “The roads to Afghanistan have been sealed.”

In a separate incident Friday, armed men tried to sneak into a military compound in Wana, sparking a shootout, Gen. Sultan said. One soldier was injured by a rocket fired by the attackers, local official Mohammed Azam Khan said.

Despite deep local opposition, Pakistani forces have been slowly increasing their presence in the tribal areas under pressure from Washington to crack down on al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, who are believed sheltering in the region.

Authorities have deployed rapid reaction forces to specific areas along the border with Afghanistan, a mountainous expanse that runs 2,000 miles from the Himalayas in Pakistan’s northern territories to the desert of southwestern Baluchistan.

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