Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani legislator, who the country’s military says “assaulted” a checkpoint in the northwestern district of North Waziristan, has denied the allegation and told Al Jazeera he is in hiding and fears for his life, as rights groups called for an impartial investigation into the incident.
“I am at a safe location, although it is not that safe,” Mohsin Dawar, a member of the national parliament and leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) rights group, told Al Jazeera by satellite phone from an undisclosed location on Tuesday.
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“They have surrounded my village. All the routes out are blocked.”
The death toll from Sunday’s confrontation at a military checkpoint in the Khar Qamar area of North Waziristan, about 210km south of provincial capital Peshawar, rose to at least eight on Monday, according to a military statement.
The military claims the PTM protesters attacked the security post, while Dawar and other PTM members say soldiers fired on unarmed protesters without provocation.
Part 1/2: Check this latest video coming from Waziristan about the incident. @Aliwazirna50 is moving with PTM activists and then suddenly Firing broke out. All PTM activists are unarmed and are just moving to a place in jubiliation while the firing starts on them. #PTMUnderAttack pic.twitter.com/6gmiJA1Uok
— Justice For Pashtuns (@justice4pashtun) May 28, 2019
Telephone lines, mobile phone reception and internet connectivity in North Waziristan have all remained suspended since Sunday’s incident.
Dawar said he was “in extreme danger” and would hold the military responsible if he was attacked. Ali Wazir, another PTM leader and member of parliament, was arrested along with eight others during the confrontation.
The military said on Monday that five more bodies were found in the area where the confrontation occurred, in addition to the three protesters killed and 15 others – including five soldiers – who were wounded in the violence.
Dawar and Wazir led a group of people who “assaulted” the post and fired upon it, a security source told Al Jazeera.
Since last year, the PTM has been demanding accountability for rights abuses allegedly committed by Pakistan’s military in its years of war against the Taliban in the northwestern tribal districts. The group has faced a widespread crackdown, with frequent arrests of activists and a complete media blackout on coverage of its events.
The group has demanded the tribal districts be cleared of landmines and unexploded ordnance; that hundreds of “missing persons” who were allegedly victims of enforced disappearances be produced and formally charged in court; and an end to the alleged practice of extrajudicial killings by the military and police.
Videos released by the PTM showed Dawar, Wazir and others crossing a barrier at the checkpoint, after engaging in a heated argument with soldiers who were denying them entry.
“We crossed the second barrier and joined [another group of protesters], and people started cheering,” Dawar told Al Jazeera. “When the cheering and shouting of slogans started, then [soldiers] started firing.”
At least two pieces of video footage shared by the PTM appeared to corroborate this narration of events, with shots being heard after PTM supporters crossed a barrier.
“When the firing started, we initially thought they were firing into the air [to disperse us],” said Dawar. “But then, I saw a man to my left was injured and bleeding. And to my right, another man fell.”
The legislator, who was elected to the national assembly from North Waziristan in Pakistan’s general election last year, said he travelled on foot for 40km surrounded by supporters to reach a safe location.
— Justice For Pashtuns (@justice4pashtun) May 27, 2019
The military denies the PTM’s version of events, saying the activists “assaulted” the post.
“Troops at the check post exercised maximum restraint in the face of provocation and direct firing on the post,” said a military statement released on Sunday.
Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify either account because journalists’ access to the area is restricted by the military.
Arrests led to protest
On May 6, a soldier was killed and three others wounded when unidentified gunmen opened fire on military personnel in the Khar Qamar area, near the site of Sunday’s violence, local media reported.
A follow-up attack took place on Friday, when security forces set up a “blocking position” in the area to search for the perpetrators, a security source said. One soldier was wounded in that attack, the military said.
Following the attack, security forces carried out search operations to identify the perpetrators, arresting two men, the source said.
After the arrests, local residents held a sit-in protest against the detentions, claiming the men were innocent and that security forces had harassed an elderly woman during their raids.
“This was a local protest that had nothing to do with the PTM,” said the source. “It was purely for release of the two terrorist facilitators.”
Dawar corroborated that version of events, telling Al Jazeera he was leading a group of PTM activists to investigate the case and speak with local residents to ascertain whether there had been a rights violation during the raids.
“[The PTM] was not protesting, the people of the area were protesting,” he said. “We were trying to go and meet the people who were protesting to find out what had happened there and to find out the fundamental issue.”
The confrontation between both sides took place when soldiers attempted to stop Dawar, Wazir and others from meeting with a separate group of protesters who were on the other side of the Khar Qamar check post.
The military, however, said crossing the barrier at the checkpoint constituted an aggressive act.
“Anywhere in the world, check posts are a no-go area for anyone,” said the security source. “That is what a check post is meant for.”
Dawar said the PTM had not acted violently, and would not do so.
“We are extremely non-violent. The whole reason we are successful is because we have been non-violent, he said. “We have not broken so much as a potted plant in a year and a half of protesting. They want us to be violent, they are trying to push us towards this, but we will never go that way.”
‘Who will go?’
On Monday, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) both called for independent investigations into the violence.
“The Pakistan government must immediately order an independent and effective investigation into the killing of activists on Sunday in North Waziristan. If the reports are correct that the army killed protesters by unlawfully using live ammunition, this would be a very serious violation of international law,” said Rabia Mehmood, Amnesty’s South Asia researcher.
The HRCP said it was “alarmed” by the violence.
“HRCP believes that this will further escalate tensions between PTM supporters and security institutions, consequently leading to a permanent wedge between the people of tribal districts and the state,” the statement said.
The organisation demanded the release of Wazir, the PTM leader and member of parliament who was in custody after the incident.
Pakistan’s government backed the military’s version of events, with the Prime Minister’s Information Adviser Firdous Ashiq Awan terming the group led by Dawar and Wazir “extremists”.
“The way that those who would challenge the writ of the state attacked a Pakistani military check post … The cabinet has condemned this extremist act,” she said at a press conference on Tuesday.
Dawar denied he or other PTM supporters were acting illegally by attempting to access the area where the arrests took place.
“There is a sit-in protest in my area, and I am the elected representative of the area,” he said. “If I do not go there to find out the issue, who will go?”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan: @AsadHashim