Tribal elders in a Pakistani village where a suicide car bomber killed nearly 100 people insisted Saturday that residents will keep defying the Taliban, even as the bloodshed laid bare the risks facing the citizens’ militias that make up a key piece of Pakistan’s arsenal against extremism.
The New Year’s Day attack on the northwest village of Shah Hasan Khel was one of the deadliest in a surge of bombings that has killed more than 600 across Pakistan since October. Police believe the attacker meant to detonate his 550 pounds (250 kilograms) of explosives at a meeting of tribesmen who supervise an anti-Taliban militia. Instead, the blast went off at a nearby outdoor volleyball court, killing at least 96 people.
The explosion leveled some three dozen mud-brick homes and covered the village with dust, smoke and the smell of burning flesh. On Saturday, numerous homes received visitors offering condolences, and funeral prayers were held. Many of the residents in the village of 5,000, which lies near Pakistan’s militant-filled tribal belt, were too scared to name any possible culprits, but others were defiant.
“The people are in severe grief and fear — it is a demoralizing thing,” said Raham Dil Khan, a rifle-toting, 70-something member of the tribal council. “We want the government to provide security, but one thing is very clear: The committee will stand against every type of terrorism and despite this great loss we will continue our work.”
None of the elders at the gathering was killed. The 28-member council had been debating punishing relatives of militants suspected in the recent killing of a fellow tribal leader, Khan said.
Across Pakistan’s northwest, where the police force is thin, underpaid and under-equipped, various villages and tribes have taken security into their own hands over the past two years by setting up citizen militias to fend off the Taliban.
The government has encouraged such “lashkars,” and in some areas they have proven key to reducing militant activity. In the Bajur tribal region, for instance, the militias helped turn the tide against militants during a 2008-2009 army offensive. And in the northwest’s Swat Valley, citizens have set up militias to prevent militants from staging a comeback as the army continues an offensive there.
The militia movement has its roots in ethnic Pashtun tribal traditions that go back generations and encourage vengeance. It has been compared to the largely successful U.S. efforts to persuade Sunni tribesmen to turn on al-Qaida in Iraq.
But Pakistani tribal leaders who face off with the militants do so at grave personal risk. Several suicide attacks have targeted meetings of anti-Taliban elders, and militants often go after individuals.
One reason militancy has spread in Pakistan’s tribal belt — a semi-autonomous region where tribes, not the government, have long wielded the most authority — is because insurgents have slain dozens of elders and filled the resulting power vacuum.
Shah Hasan Khel is a village filled with many farmers and other laborers. Its residents are mainly Pashtuns, the same group that make up the bulk of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
The two movements are separate but linked, and both oppose their countries’ U.S. allied governments. U.S. and Pakistani army offensives aim to squeeze the militants on both sides of the border, though many of the insurgents are believed to slip easily back and forth across the porous boundary.
The militia in Shah Hasan Khel has about 1,000 members, essentially all the adult males in the village, but tribal elders said residents needed more support — including weapons — from the government.
“Such attacks will only strengthen our resolve — being Pashtun, revenge is the only answer to the gruesome killings,” said Mushtaq Khan, 50, the head of the tribal council.
Shah Hasan Khel lies in Lakki Marwat district near South Waziristan, where the army has been waging an offensive against the Pakistani Taliban since October. The military operation was undertaken with the backing of the U.S., which is eager for Pakistan to free its tribal belt of militants believed to be involved in attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.
But the offensive has provoked apparent reprisal attacks across the country. Those behind the strikes appear increasingly willing to hit targets beyond security forces. No group claimed responsibility for Friday’s blast, but that is not uncommon when many civilians die.
Mohammed Qayyum, 22, tried to avoid crying Saturday as he recounted how his younger brother died and his family’s house was damaged.
“After the blast, I heard cries, I saw dust, and I saw injured and dead bodies,” said Qayyum, who escaped safely. “See this rubble? See these destroyed homes? Everybody was happy before the explosion, but today we are mourning.”
While many in the village seemed scared or in shock, others vowed revenge.
“We are not cowards,” said Naqeebullah Khan, 25, who lost a cousin. “We will fight. We will die. We will not bow to these cowards.”
Authorities said about 300 people were on or near the volleyball court, including security personnel.
Local administrator Asmatullah Khan said Saturday that 90 bodies had been identified, while six remained unknown. Thirty-six people were being treated at nearby medical centers.
Mushtaq Khan, the tribal leader, estimated the death toll was higher, saying more than two dozen people were reported missing.
The attack was one of the deadliest in years in Pakistan, and the second deadliest since the latest wave of bloodshed began in October. A car bomb killed 112 people at a crowded market in Peshawar on Oct. 28.
As hundreds of people poured into the village to offer condolences, Raees Khan, a 65-year-old who lost five relatives in the blast, showed the palms of his hands and said: “Look at these blisters. We were working all night to dig the dead bodies out of this rubble. We are tired.”
He then looked down at the pile of debris beneath him and said, “I don’t know whether there are more dead bodies under my feet.”
Toosi reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Ijaz Mohammed in Shah Hasan Khel contributed to this report.