Islamabad, Pakistan – At least three people have been killed and more than 15 wounded after gunfire erupted near a Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) protest against enforced disappearances in the northwestern Pakistani region of North Waziristan. This is the latest flare-up of tension between the country’s powerful military and the rights group.
Gunfire occurred at the protest led by two PTM leaders, who are also members of parliament, near a checkpoint in the Khar Qamar area of North Waziristan on Sunday morning, the military said in a statement.
There were conflicting reports on who initiated the violence, with PTM activists telling Al Jazeera that soldiers fired on unarmed protesters, while the military said the protesters “assaulted” the post, led by Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, both elected members of the National Assembly from the area in a general election last year.
Wazir and eight others were taken into custody following the violence, the military statement said. Dawar’s whereabouts remain unknown. Five soldiers were among those wounded, the military said.
Saud Dawar, the PTM leader’s brother, told Al Jazeera that family members had received word that Mohsin Dawar was unhurt, but that they had not been able to establish direct contact with him.
Dawar and Wazir were leading a protest in the area against an alleged enforced disappearance perpetrated by the military. The military said the man arrested was a “suspected terrorists’ facilitator”.
Mobile phone reception and internet connectivity in North Waziristan is some of the worst in the South Asian country, with limited infrastructure erected in a district that has been among the lowest performing on governance and socioeconomic indicators for decades.
Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify details of the violence due to the limited connectivity to the area.
PTM alleges rights abuses
The PTM shot to prominence in January last year when it led countrywide protests against the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young man from South Waziristan, by the police.
The group, whose leadership is comprised of young rights activists from the war-torn tribal districts where Pakistan has waged the bulk of its war against the Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies, has been campaigning for accountability for alleged rights abuses by the armed forces in the war.
It has three main demands: the clearance of land mines and other unexploded ordnance from the tribal districts; an end to extrajudicial killings in Pakistan’s war against armed groups; and accountability for thousands of people who have been subjected to enforced disappearances by the state.
North Waziristan, once a stronghold of the TTP, was cleared by Pakistan’s military after a security operation was launched in 2014 to dismantle the group.
The PTM’s campaign has often brought the group up against Pakistan’s powerful military, which has ruled the country for roughly half of its 71-year history and public criticism of which is considered rare for fear of reprisals.
Last month, the military accused the PTM of being funded by foreign intelligence agencies and warned leaders that their “time is up”.
“The way they are playing into the hands of others, their time is up,” said military spokesperson Major-General Asif Ghafoor, in the military’s most forceful statement yet against a group that has faced arbitrary detentions, treason charges against its leaders and a blanket ban on media coverage of its events.
On Sunday, PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen said his group would continue to fight for justice peacefully.
“This is a follow up of [Ghafoor’s] threat of ‘time is up’,” Pashteen tweeted. “During past few days, [the military’s] social media teams have been creating the atmosphere for this attack today. Strongly protest this cowardly attack. PTM will continue its nonviolent constitutional struggle.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim