ISLAMABAD - At least three people were killed and several dozen wounded Sunday morning when Pakistan’s security forces and protesters skirmished at a security checkpoint in North Waziristan.
The military blamed the incident in North Waziristan, close to Afghanistan’s border, on leaders of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a local rights movement. The country’s sitting government supported the military’s version of events, while several of the largest opposition parties seemed to be supporting PTM after the incident.
PTM leaders Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, who represent the region in Pakistan's national assembly, were involved in the protest. After the incident, Wazir and several other PTM members were arrested, while Dawar went into hiding.
Dawar told VOA's Deewa Service security personnel were trying to block them from going to demonstrate against alleged abuses by the military during a search operation in the region a day earlier.
“They beat up a woman and picked up some other people yesterday (Saturday). We were going to protest that incident when they opened fire on us. At first, it was aerial firing, then they fired on us directly,” he said.
A message from ISPR, Pakistan military’s public relations wing, said the search operation and subsequent arrests were carried out in response to an attack on its local forces in that area on Friday.
A separate official statement suggested the PTM protest was meant to “exert pressure for release of suspected terrorists’ facilitators” arrested in the search operation.
The statement also said troops fired on protesters in response to an attack on soldiers.
“Troops at the check post exercised maximum restraint in the face of provocation and direct firing on the check post,” said a statement by ISPR. It said five soldiers were also wounded in the incident Sunday morning.
However, PTM leaders denied the accusations, saying soldiers fired on people who had been protesting peacefully.
PTM activist Rahim Dawar of North Waziristan said he saw dozens of people who had been wounded in the firing.
“I saw at least two dozen people that were hurt. For an hour, no one helped us. We were trying to pick up the injured when three army vehicles came and took the wounded away,” Rahim Dawar told VOA's Deewa Service.
A cellphone video shared in various WhatsApp groups shows Mohsin Dawar and other protesters angrily yelling at security personnel, demanding to be let through. Neither Wazir nor any of the people around him seem to be wielding weapons.
VOA was not able to independently verify the video.
Updates from the area are difficult to gather, however, due to a curfew in the area and a complete suspension of internet and telephone services.
“I started receiving calls within half an hour of the incident, but within the hour everything was blocked,” VOA Deewa Service reporter Adnan Bitani said.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young leader of Pakistan's People Party (PPP) and son of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said he could not believe the violence was perpetrated by PTM leaders.
“I’m sorry, what? How can Mohsin Dawar attack a check post. ... I don’t think that an elected member of parliament can carry out an attack like this,” he said when questioned about the incident during a press conference.
Acknowledging that he was unaware of facts in this case, he added that the country nonetheless needed to engage with the young political activists and address their grievances.
“If we call out own citizens, our own politicians “traitors” every time they demand their rights, demand democracy, demand rule of law, then it will lead to something dangerous,” Bhutto Zardari said.
The military has often alleged that PTM receives funding from hostile intelligence agencies and works on an anti-state agenda, a claim PTM denies.
“Have we not paid a heavy price for trying to crush protests and silence dissent,” tweeted Maryam Nawaz Sharif, vice president of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the daughter and heir-apparent of ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Both Bhutto Zardari and Sharif seemed to be alluding to Pakistan’s history, when part of the country, called East Pakistan, separated to make Bangladesh after its population felt oppressed and sidelined by the ruling elite in West Pakistan.
PTM has so far been a peaceful movement focused on the rights of Pashtuns, particularly those living in the areas bordering Afghanistan who bear the brunt of Taliban violence as well as the military operations against the militants.
The party's main demands have been to end extrajudicial killings, present victims of enforced disappearance into a court, clear landmines, and reduce checkpoints in the tribal areas, which, the party claims, are not just a hindrance for the local population, but a source of humiliation at the hands of those guarding the posts.