MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - Several thousand villagers fled a Pakistani tribal region on Wednesday, where an army offensive was expected any day following pressure on Pakistan from the United States to act against al Qaeda cells.
Since President George W. Bush spoke on Saturday of being “troubled” by al Qaeda regathering its strength in Pakistan’s tribal lands, some kind of counter-terrorism operation has appeared highly probable in North Waziristan.
“We have no choice but to pray to Allah for the safety of our lives,” said Akbar Khan, a laborer in the main town of Miranshah, worrying that his family risked being caught in the cross-fire by staying.
Bush said Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf realized action was needed, and the army has deployed more troops to the region where a week earlier militant tribesmen, supporting the Taliban and harboring al Qaeda, scrapped a 10-month-old peace deal with the government.
Early on Wednesday, a rocket attack killed nine people and wounded 40 in Bannu, a town in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) at the gateway to North Waziristan.
The army said it has killed at least 54 militants in clashes since Saturday, largely in retaliatory actions, but the increased deployments added to a tense atmosphere.
Thousands of villagers streamed out of Macha Mandakhel village, 40 km (25 miles) west of Miranshah, after the army warned it would be cracking down in the wake of an attack on a convoy which killed 12 soldiers last week.
Movements of military and paramilitary convoys in and around Miranshah and Mir Ali towns had become more regular, while checkposts had been reinforced.
Soldiers, fearful of suicide attacks, have opened fire on cars approaching their checkposts too fast.
The main road connecting the tribal region with the rest of Pakistan was blocked by security forces after militants fired rockets on Esha checkpost near Miranshah.
“We’re so scared. This time, the situation is worse than last year. In the past, we used to go with our family and children to Bannu city but now, it is not safe there either,” said Noor Ahmed Khan, a shopkeeper in Miranshah’s main bazaar.
In the towns, militants who had roamed around the main bazaars in four-wheel-drive vehicles with tinted glass windows were spotted less often.
While the army has yet to launch an offensive, tribal elders have shuttled between Miranshah and the NWFP capital of Peshawar vainly trying to resurrect a peace deal that critics said had created a safe haven for al Qaeda and its allies.
In neighboring South Waziristan, thousands of villagers attended a quiet funeral for a well-known Taliban fighter who had blown himself up with a grenade rather than be taken alive, after being cornered by an anti-terrorist squad in the neighboring district of Zhob a day earlier.
Abdullah Mehsud, 31, was buried in his home village of Nano. He had spent more than 2 years in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp before his release in 2004, and lost his leg in a mine blast during the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in 1996.
He was second-in-command of a Taliban group that sent fighters to take on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has stationed more than 80,000 troops on its side of the 2,500 km (1,500 miles) border that snakes through mountains and deserts, but is constantly under pressure to do more.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband was due to arrive in Islamabad on Wednesday from Kabul on his first trip abroad since Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister.
“Afghanistan embodies some of the biggest challenges for foreign policy,” Miliband said on Tuesday in Kabul. “The challenges and problems are manifold.”
Afghan and Pakistani tribal elders are expected to convene a grand council, or jirga, in Kabul on August 9 to evolve some way of countering the Taliban’s influence in the Pashtun tribal belt.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad, Katherine Baldwin in Kabul, Gul Yusufzai in Quetta