Pakistani tribesmen seeking revenge for a deadly mosque bombing attacked militant strongholds for a third day on Monday, while the country’s Taliban leader faced rare denunciation from within insurgent ranks.
Capitalizing on the anti-Taliban sentiments, the military’s top spokesman exhorted all Pakistanis to rise up against militants wherever they found them.
Pressure is increasing on militants who have held sway in parts of Pakistan’s northwest, with the army already bearing down in an offensive on their one-time stronghold in the Swat Valley region. Talk has now turned to the possibility of another operation against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in the nearby tribal belt along the country’s border with Afghanistan.
In the most striking example of growing anti-Taliban sentiment, up to 1,600 tribesmen in the Upper Dir district formed a civilian militia force to fight militants they hold responsible for last Friday’s suicide bombing that killed at least 33 people in a packed mosque. Such militia are known in Pakistan as lashkars.
The group cleared three villages of Taliban fighters over the weekend and focused Monday on two more villages that are known Taliban strongholds, said Khaista Rehman, a local police chief.
“The lashkar has destroyed 25 homes of Taliban commanders and their fighters in various villages,” Rehman told The Associated Press by phone. “The Taliban had set up their offices in those villages but the local residents and the lashkar have attacked them, and we hope the lashkar will succeed.”
At least 13 militants were killed and two tribesmen wounded in the fighting so far, said Nawaz Khan, another police official.
Officials blamed the Friday’s mosque bombing in the town of Haya Gai on the Taliban, saying they were angry that local tribesmen had resisted them moving into the area, where minor clashes between the two sides occurred for months.
Army chief spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas urged civilians to consider the kind of rule the Taliban was trying to impose _ they stand accused of whippings and beheadings in the name of Islamic law in Swat _ and join the fight against them.
“Citizens should ponder upon the way of life they are introducing, if that is acceptable to us,” Abbas told the News1 television network. “If not, they have to raise a voice against them, they have to rise against them.”
A recent wave of violence across Pakistan blamed on militants appears to be creating tensions within the country’s Taliban leadership.
Qari Zainuddin, the leader of a Taliban faction in South Waziristan, on Monday denounced Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud for recent attacks that have killed civilians.
“Whatever Baitullah Mehsud and his associates are doing in the name of Islam is not a jihad, and in fact it is rioting and terrorism,” Zainuddin told The Associated Press. “Islam stands for peace, not for terrorism.”
Zainuddin’s motive for attacking Mehsud was not clear.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal regions, said Mehsud is facing disquiet from some other militant leaders who view his policies in South Waziristan as too brutal, though he is still powerful in the region.
Zainuddin was “a lesser evil” than Mehsud and may be trying to paint himself as a more moderate leader whom local tribesmen and government officials could support, he said.
“Baitullah Mehsud is facing some problems due to the revolt by Qari Zainuddin, but I think it would be more appropriate if the government encourages an uprising against Baitullah Mehsud with help from tribal elders in the same way the lashkar is fighting Taliban in Upper Dir,” Shah said.
Washington strongly backs the Swat offensive, and officials have said privately they would like Pakistan to follow up by launching an operation in nearby South Waziristan. The government has announced no plans to attack the area, where hardened al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are well entrenched.
The government has encouraged citizen militias in the past to oust Taliban fighters, especially in the semiautonomous Afghan border regions where the central government has limited powers. But the willingness of villagers to do so has often hinged on confidence that authorities will back them up if necessary.
With the army reporting advances against the Taliban in Swat _ an operation that also reaches into Lower Dir district and is seen as a test of the government’s resolve to fight militancy _ that confidence appears to be growing.
In its latest update on the Swat offensive, the military said Monday that a tip-off from local residents resulted in the deaths of three militants in the Charbagh region.