Pakistan's anti-Taliban militias under threat
In Pakistan's bomb-hit northwest, bands of Taliban-fighting tribesmen are threatening to give up their struggle in the face of a string of attacks and a perceived lack of government help.
Armed with the Kalashnikov rifles that swill around this lawless region and dressed in traditional tribal garb, the militia or "lashkar" members patrol their villages daily to ward off homegrown militants and protect communities.
Set up from late 2006 to support the armed forces' battle, the lashkars in Pakistan mirror efforts being made across the border in Afghanistan where authorities have encouraged armed village forces to keep insurgents at bay.
But their role has made them an obvious target for Taliban attack, and after a string of bomb and suicide attacks, as well as targeted assassinations, many of the villagers who form these private armies say they are ready to quit.
In the Matani district of Peshawar, the gateway city to insurgent-controlled areas of the northwest, a suicide bomber on Wednesday hit a funeral being held for the wife of one militiaman, killing 37 people and wounding 150 others.
Matani's lashkar is made up of more than 4,000 tribesmen who formed their group in 2007 to fight Taliban mostly based in neighbouring Darra Adam Khel tribal town, where army troops had launched several of their own operations.
The group says it has already been the target of two suicide attacks, five bombs and more than 60 rocket attacks. The men blame not only the attackers, but the government and security forces for failing to provide material support.
Tackling Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the northwest is seen as key to ending the nearly 10-year US-led war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
"Our Kalashnikovs cannot match the Taliban's rockets and mortars," said one lashkar leader in the area, Malik Sakhi Jan, 50.
"We have become the Taliban's target. They say we are lackeys of America because we are supporting the government. But the government is doing nothing for us," said Jan.
Another militia leader in Matani, Dilarwar Khan, told AFP that the police had promised support but gave nothing.
"We lack resources, we receive no weapons, we have no ammunition and we have no cash, no rations for the lashkar volunteers. The lashkar will be there if we get support from the government, otherwise we will dissolve it," he said.
Attacks across the country have killed more than 4,000 people since the storming of a militant mosque in Islamabad in July 2007.
A government official said more than a dozen anti-Taliban militias are active in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and across the tribal areas.
But the government says it is not willing to beef up the lashkars for fear of creating an unwieldy force in parallel to the army and police.
"We are talking to them and will accept their reasonable demands," Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister in the provincial Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, told AFP.
"But the lashkars' task was to help our troops to trace militants and to provide self-defence for the villages. They are not an attacking force, this job is done by our security forces," Hussain said.
Regional police chief Liaqat Ali Khan said the militia's role had to be limited to identifying and locating militants for the police to find.
"They were not formed to become a parallel or alternate force," Khan said.
In Bazid Khel village, close to the Khyber border where NATO supply trucks bound for Afghanistan come under regular attack, head of the local 500-man anti-Taliban militia, Fahimuddin, also complains that he lacks guns and money. His enemy is the anti-government force Lashkar-e-Islam, which enforces Taliban-style strict Islamic law in the area.
But not all authorities believe the pro-government forces are a good idea.
Former minister of the province Siraj-Ul-Haq told AFP that the militias were failing in what they set out to do.
"They form these lashkars in the name of peace but have failed to establish peace," he said.
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