Mir Wali looked through the shattered windows of a car, staring at the bullet-riddled bodies of his four friends.
Minutes earlier, Wali had waved goodbye after having lunch with them. As his friends got into their car, there was a sudden burst of gunfire.
Several unidentified men on motorcycles armed with AK-47 assault rifles had stopped next to the vehicle and opened fire, instantly killing the four young men.
"I narrowly escaped death," said Wali, recalling the June 19 attack in North Waziristan, a district in northwestern Pakistan. "I believe that I was the main target."
The men were members of Youth of Waziristan, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns for human rights in North Waziristan. Wali is also a member of the group.
The victims join a recent wave of targeted killings in Pakistan's Pashtun tribal belt, a volatile region along the border with Afghanistan that was a former militant stronghold. No group has claimed responsibility for the killings.
The surge in targeted killings and assassinations has coincided with Pakistan's controversial peace negotiations with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) extremist group. Under a proposed peace plan that has been widely criticized, TTP militants based in Afghanistan would be allowed to return to their former strongholds in northwestern Pakistan and bear arms.
Local activists and residents said the recent killings could be an attempt by Pakistan's powerful army and the TTP to silence those opposed to the peace process, a claim rejected by the militants. Many of the victims have been Pashtun tribal elders, religious leaders, and activists critical of the army and militant groups in the region.
Residents have long accused Pakistan's military and its intelligence agency of carrying out extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic minority. But many residents do not openly criticize the authorities for fear of retribution.
Hundreds Of Killings
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan's impoverished tribal belt became the scene of deadly army operations, U.S. drone attacks, and militant attacks that uprooted millions of people and left thousands dead. Pashtuns make up the majority of recruits and members of militant groups active in the region, including the TTP.
A massive Pakistani Army offensive in 2014 drove out the TTP, Al-Qaeda, and foreign militant groups from Pakistan and across the border to Afghanistan, bringing relative peace to northwestern Pakistan. But since 2019, the TTP has intensified its cross-border attacks against the Pakistani Army and targeted killings have spiked.
There are no official statistics for the number of targeted killings in Pakistan. Mir Kalam Wazir, a lawmaker from the provincial assembly of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, estimated that around 450 people have been killed in targeted killings since 2018. Most of them occurred in North Waziristan, a former TTP stronghold, he said.
There have been at least 50 targeted killings so far this year, in what observers have said is a noticeable increase. Local activists recorded 70 targeted killings in 2021 and over 50 in 2020 and 2019.
The latest victims were religious scholars Qari Samiuddin and Qari Nauman, who were shot dead by armed motorcyclists in North Waziristan on July 14. The two were members of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F) religious party and regarded as strong voices against targeted killings in the area.
Since July 18, the JUI-F has held a sit-in in North Waziristan to demand an end to target killings and urge authorities to apprehend the perpetrators of the attacks.
‘Chaos And Fear'
The spike in targeted killings in recent months comes amid ongoing peace talks between Pakistan and the TTP. A deal appears to be in sight after the extremist group declared an indefinite cease-fire in June following months of negotiations brokered by the Afghan Taliban.
Reports in the Pakistani media indicate that Islamabad has agreed to release hundreds of detained and convicted TTP members. Additionally, a large portion of the tens of thousands of Pakistani troops stationed in the region will be withdrawn. Islamabad has also agreed to implement Islamic Shari'a law in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Malakand region. The two sides have yet to agree on retracting democratic reforms in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and whether thousands of TTP militants can return with their arms and keep their organization intact.
The terms of the proposed peace deal have been condemned by locals in northwestern Pakistan, rights groups, and opposition political groups.
Activists and political figures in the region have said the spike in targeted killings could be an effort by authorities and the TTP to stifle criticism of the contentious peace process.
Mohsin Dawar, a member of parliament, said residents in the region suspect the role of "state security agencies" in the killings.
"On the other hand, militant groups are trying to create chaos and fear so they can stop people from engaging in political activities," he said. "The targeted killings are an attempt to silence dissenting voices."
Some observers have said that a breakaway faction of the TTP led by Hafiz Gul Bahadar, which is not part of the truce, could be involved in the killings. The faction is believed to be active in North Waziristan.
Several tribal elders told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that former TTP militants who surrendered to the Pakistani security forces and were later released were also active in the region. The elders alleged that the Pakistani military and intelligence services were using the armed men -- known locally as the "surrendered" -- "against the locals whenever and in whatever area they feel the need."
Pakistan has long been accused of supporting militant groups inside and outside Pakistan to serve its military and political interests, while clamping down on those fighting Pakistani forces.
Major General Naeem Akhtar, the top military officer in North Waziristan, said in a written statement to Radio Mashaal that the military, with the support of the locals, will succeed in reining in any remaining militants in the region.
But many locals doubt that the spate of targeted killings will end.
"We live in fear," said Malak Gul Saleh Jan, a local tribal elder who survived a 2019 attack by unidentified armed men who opened fire on his car.
"We don't know who is killing us," added Jan, who suffered bullet wounds. "And that is the real fear."