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By Kashif A. Khan
PESHAWAR — A 2008 military operation in South Waziristan flushed out hundreds of militants from Central Asian countries, but some have remained in the tribal belt and continue to fight Pakistani forces, security analysts and intelligence sources said.
And the Central Asians are more committed to their cause than are local militants, some security analysts said. Most of the Central Asians come from Uzbekistan, but others arrived from Tajikistan, Chechnya and other parts of the CIS.
“There was evidence that along with Arab and other foreign militants, Uzbeks and other Central Asian nationals spilled over to South Waziristan after early 2000,” said Brig. (ret.) Mohammad Saad, a senior security analyst. The Central Asian militants followed commander Tahir Yuldashev under the umbrella of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
Central Asian nationals might be committing suicide bombings in Pakistan, but culprits are hard to identify after such attacks, Saad said.
“On many occasions, it is difficult to identify the ethnicity of suicide bombers,” said Masood Ahmad, Deputy Inspector-General of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police. “They are trained in such a manner that their heads and most of the body are blown up.”
It's hard to distinguish militants
One can hardly differentiate between Central Asian militants and refugees from northern Afghanistan, said a senior government official who requested anonymity. “Many of those who blew themselves up in Peshawar and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkwa were instantly said to be either Uzbeks or Tajiks. But later they were confirmed to be Afghan nationals,” he said.
“There are reports that some of them are still there. But this might be part of propaganda that they are here in Pakistani tribal areas in large numbers,” Saad said.“They (the IMU) have claimed many suicide attacks in Afghanistan, but no such claim has come from them regarding any attack in Pakistan,” Saad said. Pakistani troops drove out most of the Central Asians in 2008, Saad said. “There are reports that some of them are still there. But this might be part of propaganda that they are here in Pakistani tribal areas in large numbers.”
He said Central Asia militants are deadlier than the locals. “They are more committed and deadly fighters, like the Punjabi Taliban.”
Yuldashev led the IMU first in Afghanistan and later in Pakistan. He was reportedly killed by an August 27, 2009, missile strike, dying one day later in a hospital in Zhob, Balochistan.
Confirmation of his death came nearly a year later on an IMU-run Uzbek-language website. It described him as Shaheed (martyr). The IMU later said Abu Usmon Odil had replaced Yuldashev.
Yuldashev's death weakened the IMU, Mushtaq Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based journalist covering events in North and South Waziristan, said. “Many of them later returned to their country, and others joined the Afghan Taliban led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the … Haqqani Network.”
Besides Central Asians, Turks, Germans and other Europeans have fought for the IMU.
“The Uzbek militants were well-trained in making explosive devices and hand-to-hand combat,” Mushtaq said. “After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, they came to South Waziristan along with Commander Nek Mohammad Wazir and settled in Wana as well as the towns of Azam Warsak and Shakai valley.”
Central Asians were in S. Waziristan in 2008
Central Asians played a crucial role in the militancy during the Pakistani army’s first anti-Taliban operation in South Waziristan in 2008, Mushtaq confirmed.
“Yes, they carried out some suicide attacks against Pakistani forces,” Mushtaq said.
By then, the Central Asian militants already had worn out their welcome through reported brutality toward locals, provoking Ahmadzai Wazir tribes in South Waziristan in 2007 to raise tribal lashkars against them.
Aided by government forces, the tribes drove the IMU out of its communities, forcing the IMU to take shelter with the Mehsud tribes in South Waziristan. Some members remain in Pakistan, namely in Mir Ali sub-division of North Waziristan, and are still linked to Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, Mushtaq said.
“The number of Uzbek militants still living in North Waziristan could be around 250 families,” he said, adding that the Tajiks and Chechens are “not significant” in number.