Government security forces killed at least 11 civilians, including six Afghans, when troops opened fire on a vehicle in a border region suspected of harboring Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, witnesses and authorities said Saturday.
Pakistan’s military and witnesses offered conflicting accounts of the incident in the troubled semiautonomous region of South Waziristan, where President Pervez Musharraf has intensified the search for militants in recent weeks.
Authorities said troops at a checkpoint came under fire from attackers in two or three vehicles; they returned fire, killing several people in a minibus. The driver of a nearby taxi also was killed, they said. “The chances of some civilian having been killed cannot be ruled out,” a military statement added.
Witnesses said all 11 of the people killed were civilians riding in a Toyota pickup that came under unprovoked fire from Pakistani forces.
The death toll in the incident is believed to be the largest in a single Pakistani military operation along the border with Afghanistan. It could fuel anger against Musharraf and his close alliance with the United States in its counter-terrorism efforts.
Residents of the area say 20 to 30 Americans, believed to be FBI agents, are working out of a school compound called the Technical Training Center in the border town of Miram Shah. Pakistan’s government denies that Americans are operating in the area, but the Miram Shah compound has been a frequent target of rocket attacks, without any reported casualties.
Meanwhile, a military spokesman in Islamabad denied an Iranian state radio report that said Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been captured in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
A Pakistani military spokesman said the latest shooting incident in the Afghan border region followed an attack Friday night on a Frontier Corps checkpoint and army camp near Wana, the regional capital. The attackers mortar rounds and heavy machine guns at the military camp, the spokesman said. No military casualties were reported.
Amir Nawab, a local tribesman, called the checkpoint shooting a tragedy.
Mohammed Manan Wazir, 90, said the security forces opened fire when the driver was about to stop the vehicle. Wazir added that residents of the area were angry and warned that the deaths might spark a violent reaction.
Support for Afghanistan’s Taliban guerrillas, and their allies, runs strong among villagers in the area, who, like those across the border in Afghanistan, are predominantly ethnic Pushtuns.
Pakistan’s military said it had captured several foreigners during a sweep Tuesday in South Waziristan that netted more than 20 people. The military said suspected terrorists were being interrogated for possible clues to the whereabouts of Bin Laden.
Residents of the area denied that the troops found foreigners during the operation, which followed weeks of negotiations in which the government demanded that tribal elders hand over people on a list of those suspected of harboring terrorists.
“No foreign elements had been arrested during Tuesday’s operation,” said an elder, Malik Sarwar Khan. “The detained people were local tribesmen who had no links with the terror suspects.”
“Waziristan has become another Palestine, where the army troops are destroying houses and arresting innocent people in the name of Al Qaeda,” another tribesman said.
Ali is a Times special correspondent. Special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.