Tribal elders who defied Taliban are killed in ambush

Pakistani army fails to protect communities who were told to take a stand
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Militants in Pakistan have attacked and killed tribal elders who were involved in setting up armed militias to try and protect their communities against the threat of the Taliban.

At least nine people were killed in one attack in the north-west, when militants ambushed a convoy that was travelling to meet security officials. The three vehicles were sprayed with gunfire. At least four elders were among the dead. Reports say that residents rushed to the scene and attacked the militants, stopping them from killing survivors.

The ambush of the convoy, travelling between Machikhel and Bannu, about 100 miles south-west of Peshawar, followed an attack on a so-called peace committee in the Sertelegram area of the Swat Valley. The committee was set up last week to protect the area from the Taliban, which was driven out earlier this year by Pakistan troops. Officials said militants had killed two members of the group as they slept.

With its armed forces stretched by efforts to confront militants across the tribal areas, Pakistan has actively encouraged local leaders to speak out against the Taliban and to raise men and arms to form lashkars or militias, especially in remote areas. Weapons as well as logistical support and intelligence are provided by the military.

These undertakings have proved to be perilous and the Taliban has repeatedly targeted these opposition groups and their leaders. In many cases, the government – having encouraged tribal elders to make a stand – has subsequently failed to protect or support them. Last October, more than 30 elders from the Alizai tribe were killed in a suicide bomb attack at a meeting in the village of Ghiljo.

Among those reported to have been killed in yesterday's attack was Malik Sultan, who was part of the government-sponsored effort to establish a lashkar.

One witness, Inayatullah Khan, told the Associated Press that tribesmen killed two militants in the gun battle. Security forces later arrived and joined the fight.

Experts say the Pakistan Army, faced with a lack of counter-insurgency expertise and limited resources, believes it has little option but to encourage the lashkars, which have been compared to the Awakening Councils in Iraq that helped US forces confront al-Qa'ida.

But there are also concerns that if these traditional militias become too strong, they will simply become another problem that the government will have to address.

"They have the support of the government but also of local people who think they should have their own community security group," said Talat Masood, a retired army general. "But one has to be careful of these people as well, as we have had examples of when they become too powerful. Because of that, I think they should be a transient feature rather than fixed."

Despite the dangers, there appears to be little let-up in the willingness to form the lashkars. In a separate incident in the Kanju district near Swat's main town, Mingora, thousands of armed citizens gathered at the Saidu Sharif airport, fearing a Taliban comeback and pledging to protect their area.

"This is our effort of self-help and people turned up here with whatever weapon they have from a baton to an assault rifle and pistols," said Inamur Rehman, the head of the Swat National Council. "We will resist militants and guard our area for a lasting peace."

An army spokesman, Brigadier Salman Akber, said: "This is a welcome sign that people have risen to protect themselves and guard against the militants."

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