IN North Waziristan, the wild border land that America hopes will be Osama Bin Laden’s graveyard, the normally busy roads are almost deserted and the fear is pervasive. Army helicopters sweep the valleys at night hunting for Al-Qaeda militants as troops and gunmen exchange artillery and rocket fire.
America and Britain regard this usually autonomous tribal area – where Bin Laden is long believed to have been hiding – as the logistics centre of Islamic terrorist attacks around the world.
President Pervez Musharraf sees it as the centre of a campaign to “Talibaniseï¿½? Pakistan. Spurred on by Washington, he has abandoned a truce with Waziristan’s Islamist guerrillas and ordered his army to root them out.
There are believed to be about 8,000 gunmen – a mix of foreign Al-Qaeda volunteers, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Islamists and local Waziris whose families have for centuries fought off any attempt to impose outside rule on this area. In modern times, even map-makers have been shot to hide the region’s mysteries from the outside world.
Last week soldiers sealed all the roads into Miran Shah, the provincial capital, occupied the hills around it and fired the first artillery salvo in what Musharraf’s many critics have called a war on his own people.
On Friday morning the army moved into parts of Miran Shah itself after militants blew up government buildings overnight. Most of the 60,000 townspeople are feared trapped, but hundreds of families have fled their mud homes in villages nearby and headed east for the sanctuary of Bannu, a town in the neighbouring North West Frontier province.
I watched last week as some of the 80,000 troops deployed in Waziristan dug in alongside the highway outside Mirali, a small town 10 miles east of Miran Shah. Almost all the checkpoints on this stretch of narrow road were empty. Three lay in rubble because the militants had blown them up. No troops drove along the road. They shuttled to the nearby Afghan border by helicopter.
Occasionally a civilian vehicle appeared, laden with men, women and children and all they could bring with them as they fled – a few cots, a goat or two, a cow and some cooking utensils.
Raza Khan, 45, a farmer, lived with his family in Hakim Khel, a group of five villages with a population of more than 2,500 on the outskirts of Miran Shah. On Thursday afternoon he gathered his nine children and left. All the villages in his area had been all but abandoned, he told me when I found them on the road.
“Anyone who has a little cash is leaving. People can’t sleep in the night. The fighters work during the night. They are always on the move. When they attack the army from any area, the army shell that area. And it kills and injures innocent people,ï¿½? he said.
“I left my wife and brothers at the house. Left everything over there and brought my children here. I just saved their lives. A woman and her two children were wounded next to our house.ï¿½?
Noor Abdullah, a businessman in Mirali, said: “People are afraid. We expect war. People are leaving. But the army can’t fight these fighters. They are very well trained.
“People are with them. And they are in thousands. They move from one place to another. They live in the mountains and caves. It’s a difficult area.ï¿½?
He added: “The situation has became very complicated. It has affected every business. Everyone is suffering. Local officials have disappeared. They are afraid to come onto the streets or even walk. The Taliban don’t spare them.ï¿½?
This area was formerly policed – at least nominally – by a tribal militia, but they fled after Taliban death threats. The militia’s highway checkpoint in Mirali is now monitored by dozens of soldiers from bunkers they have dug on both sides of the roads to guard against suicide bombers.
I saw two nervous soldiers standing on the road – 500 yards from each other – checking on incoming and outgoing vehicles. This did not appear to deter the militants, however.
A mile or so from the Mirali checkpoint, four Uzbeks – regarded around here as a byword for Al-Qaeda – wielded powerful walkie-talkies inside a parked white Toyota saloon. One of them kept his face hidden when my driver approached them. Further up the road we saw two more Uzbeks using walkie-talkies.
As the refugees arrived in Bannu, Qari Muhammad Abdullah, a senior religious leader in the town, said that Musharraf should be afraid of the wrath of Allah. “People at the top have no idea about people’s suffering because they never experienced it. Force is not the solution. The fighting in Waziristan will kick off civil war in the entire country,ï¿½? he said.
“Waziristan could have become Baghdad much earlier. We, the clerics, stopped it. It will now become Baghdad if the army carries out operations against its own people.ï¿½?
Sources in the Pakistani army said: “There has to be a fight. There is no other option. It’s bad, but we have to fight.ï¿½?
The dangers are only too apparent. Taliban forces in South Waziristan have occupied hilltops and set up their own checkpoints to cut off army supply lines and to prevent government troops taking control.
As the clashes around Miran Shah grew more frequent on Friday night, there were Taliban rocket attacks on new army checkpoints on the main exit routes from the town and looters seized 30 computers from offices and a girls’ school.
Despite the crisis, Waziristan’s most lucrative activity – smuggling – is thriving. The only lorries I saw on the roads were laden with cattle, apparently destined illicitly for Afghanistan. I was told that a local tribal official collects Â£75 per truck for facilitating the movement of cattle across the border.