ISLAMABAD: Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said Thursday the army had made all efforts to meet the demands of a Pashtun ethnic rights movement, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), and warned its activists of a crackdown if they crossed a "line."
The comments by Ghafoor at a press conference came just days after Ali Wazir, the co-founder of PTM, and Mohsin Dawar, one of its main leaders, were barred from leaving the country and briefly detained.
The PTM was founded last January to protest alleged extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and “disappearances” of young ethnic Pashtun men under the guise of operations against the Pakistani Taliban and other militants in the country’s northwestern tribal regions. Leaders of the movement blame Pakistan’s military for these abuses, which the army strongly denies.
While PTM has attracted thousands of people to rallies around the country, the movement had also been met with criticism for raising anti-army slogans and disrespecting thousands of soldiers martyred in the war on terror.
"They are our people, they are hurt and have suffered losses, but still they haven’t resorted to violence till now therefore we have dealt with them politely,” Ghafoor said.
"But now they are heading in a direction where the situation might arise that they cross a line. We request them not to cross that line where the state is compelled to use authority to control them."
In April, Pakistan's powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa also criticized PTM for taking aim at the army.
“Some internal and external elements are hell-bent upon harming Pakistan’s national security. But I want to tell them that the armed forces with the support of the people of Pakistan will not let their ulterior motives to succeed," Bajwa said.
PTM gained momentum after the killing of aspiring model and shopkeeper, Naqeebullah Mehsud, by police in the port city of Karachi in January. Pashtuns thus began a peaceful sit-in in Islamabad demanding the abolition of the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation law that applies to the tribal areas where most Pashtuns reside; the release of all political prisoners; the removal of landmines and army checkpoints from the tribal areas; and the recovery of missing people.
Ghafoor told the media that check posts had been reduced from 469 to 331 since 2016, 44 percent landmines had already been cleared and 4,000 out of 7,000 pending cases of missing persons had been settled.
Speaking about the recently concluded visit to Pakistan of U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the army's spokesman said the army fully supported latest U.S. efforts for dialogue with the Afghan Taliban to end war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
"As much as we can, we will facilitate,” Ghafoor said when asked what Pakistan could do to help the United States negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban.
The military spokesman also raised concerns over increasing ceasefire violations by India on the Line of Control and Working Boundary. He said 55 civilians had been martyred by Indian forces this year, the highest in history. He said Indian forces were deliberately targeting civilians.
Answering questions about censorship in Pakistan media, the army spokesman denied the military was behind any moves to censor the media but urged it to play an "effective role in projecting a soft image of Pakistan."