Tragedy struck the Mir Ali area in the volatile North Waziristan Agency on December 19 when first a suicide bomber attacked a roadside checkpoint of the security forces at Khajuri and then the troops retaliated to avenge the death of two soldiers and injuries to many more.
However, almost all those killed and wounded in the retaliatory shelling by the Pakistan Army’s gunship helicopters and artillery were civilians. Though the military spokesman claimed that 35 militants, including 10 Uzbeks, were killed in the assault, there was no evidence that any militant was slain. The exact death toll was unclear as varying figures were mentioned. Independent sources and local journalists reported that 37 people, all civilians, including women and children, were killed.
However, the JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rahman, whose party has a strong presence in North Waziristan, claimed that the death toll was 65. The Maulana had phoned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from India where he had gone on a visit to demand an immediate end to the military action in North Waziristan.
Among those killed were seven members of the family of retired schoolteacher Sanaullah in Mosaki village. Mortar shells hit his house causing human and material losses. The dead included his sister-in-law, daughter-in-law and daughter, and four children. Three men were killed when shells landed in the Haji Guloon mosque in Mir Ali town.
The highest number of people was killed at the Shireen Mahal Hotel and Shireen Gas Station, owned by one person, in Mir Ali. Among the dead were six construction labourers who had come from Lakki Marwat for work in North Waziristan, another six were working at the petrol pump and some of the hotel employees.
The deaths caused anger in North Waziristan and contributed to uncertainty as there has been frequent talk of an imminent military operation in this tribal region. The incident also triggered protests, mostly in Peshawar where tribal elders, students and civil society activists staged rallies for several days outside the Peshawar Press Club to condemn the civilian casualties and demand an end to the military operation in Mir Ali.
Mohammad Nazir, elected on the lone National Assembly seat from North Waziristan, raised the issue on the floor of the house along with Maulana Jamaluddin, the MNA from neighbouring South Waziristan. They alleged that civilians had been killed in the shelling and strafing by the security forces in Mir Ali town and the nearby villages of Mosaki, Haiderkhel and IPI. They also complained that round-the-clock curfew enforced by the political administration in the area had made it difficult for the people to bury the dead, shift the wounded to hospitals and stock on food and other items of common use.
The ill-equipped local hospital in Mir Ali was unable to cope with the situation as most doctors couldn’t attend duty due to the curfew and many critically injured were in need of specialised treatment available in faraway hospitals in Bannu and Peshawar.
Leading politicians also took note of the incident and began issuing statements keeping in view their political line and their understanding of the situation in North Waziristan. Many condemned the suicide attack on the security forces’ checkpoint and called for an end to the military action. After initially giving credence to the military’s claim about killing 35 foreign and local militants, the media gradually reported the other side of the story also by pointing out that the local people in North Waziristan were complaining how civilians had been killed and injured at their homes and in the Mir Ali bazaar.