3 killed as Pakistan military clashes with Pashtun activists

Ali Wazir, left, and Mohsin Dawar, leaders of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) walk at the venue of a rally against, what they say, are human rights violations by security forces, in Karachi, Pakistan, in this May 13, 2018 file photo. — Reuters

ISLAMABAD — Three activists from a civil rights movement were killed Sunday after Pakistani troops clashed with protesters led by two parliamentarians in a restive tribal region near the Afghan border, the military said.

The protest was led by the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which has rattled the military since it burst onto the scene earlier last year with a call to end alleged abuses by security forces targeting ethnic Pashtuns in the restive tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, both members of parliament, were leading the demonstration when a confrontation broke out at a checkpost in Boyya in the North Waziristan tribal district.

"In (an) exchange of fire, three individuals who attacked the post lost their lives and 10 got injured," said the military in a statement, adding that at least five army soldiers also sustained injuries.

"Ali Wazir along with eight individuals has been arrested while Mohsin Javed (Dawar) is at large after inciting the crowd," the statement added.

What exactly led to the confrontation remains murky, with the military saying the activists assaulted the checkpoint, while PTM leader Dawar has alleged security forces fired directly into their group after they passed the checkpoint.

"They fired straight at us," Dawar later told Voice of America in an interview.

The incident follows months of rising tensions between the two sides, with the military publicly warning PTM leaders repeatedly to end the group's vocal criticism of the country's armed forces.

Since launching in 2018, the PTM has unleashed festering anger over abuses allegedly committed against Pashtuns across the country, including enforced disappearances and targeted killings.

The movement has remained peaceful since it began, but has been notable for its direct verbal attacks on the armed forces, in a country where such criticism is largely seen as a red line.

Pashtuns are a fiercely independent ethnic group that straddle both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

They account for roughly 15 percent of Pakistan's population, with a majority of the 30 million-strong group living in the northwest and a significant population in the southern port city of Karachi.

Sunday's incident occurred in North Waziristan, where the movement is believed to draw much of its support.

The area was once plagued by militancy and unrest. Washington believes Pakistan is providing safe haven to militant groups there — including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

The army has carried out multiple operations in the region, and security — both there and across Pakistan — has dramatically improved in recent years.

However, the PTM alleges the operations came at a heavy price, accusing the military of extrajudicial killings and "disappearing" thousands of people in the crackdown. — AFP