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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

One of the most lethal militant groups in Afghanistan is expanding its influence in Pakistan. The Haqqani network is allied with the Taliban, and it targets NATO troops in Afghanistan from its base in Pakistan's tribal area of North Waziristan.�Now the Haqqanis have begun to flex their muscles in another strategic border area called Kurram. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.��

JULIE MCCARTHY: Members of the Haqqani clan have just resolved one of the thorniest issues in Pakistan's Kurram Agency: the abduction, in July, of a group of Shiites by Sunni militants. This past week, all six were freed.�One Shiite Elder proclaimed that it boosted the image of the Haqqanis. Two members of the Afghan fighting family - Ibrahim and Khalil Haqqani - are being hailed as peace-makers in Kurram, long troubled by clashes between Sunnis and Shiites.

(Soundbite of airplanes)

Upper Kurram - predominantly Shiite - juts into Afghanistan like a thumb. Small planes are the only way in. Sunni militants have blocked the land routes.

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A bumpy journey to the Afghan border passes thru orchards and fresh pine forests. But the sectarian strife in Kurram has soaked the land in blood. From his home near the border, Shiite Elder Aun Ali Turi says battles between the Shiites and Sunnis killed several thousand people and displaced many more. He says the Pakistani Taliban fought along side the Sunnis and when the militants failed to take control of Upper Kurram, they sealed all roads leading in and out.

Mr. AUN ALI TURI (Shiite elder): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: It was the Taliban that fomented hatred and sectarian violence, he says. We Shiites asked the authorities to stop them, but they didn't.�So there were clashes, killings, and burned villages.

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Effects of the feud and the subsequent blockade can be seen in the schools of Upper Kurram, where there is no furniture. Veiled and bright-eyed young girls sit on freezing floors in neat rows. Hospitals report shortages of medicine.�Some shops display empty shelves. Scarcities worsened when Pakistan closed the nearby Afghan border.�

In recent weeks, Sunni and Shiite Elders convened a series of jirgas, or tribal gatherings, in a bid to reach a truce.�Jirga members confirm that the two Haqqani brothers instrumental in freeing the Shiite hostages last week, not only attended, but exerted powerful influence over the jirgas, quietly held in Pakistan's capital and other cities.��

Analyst Rahimullah Yousefzai says if the Haqqanis mediate an end to the blockade of Upper Kurram they would be peacemakers in a strategically situated district.

Mr. RAHIMULLAH YOUSEFZAI (Analyst): And if the Haqqanis can prevail upon the Sunnis tribes and the Pakistani militants to lift this blockade, both sides and the Shiites more than the Sunnis - would be obliged. And that I think will give the Haqqanis even more influence in this area.

MCCARTHY: Many in violence-wracked Kurram are apprehensive about why the Haqqanis have waded into their affairs. But as American drone missiles target the Haqqani base in neighboring North Waziristan and Pakistan's army mulls an offensive there, the militant network may be desperate to secure a new sanctuary.�Sources with knowledge of the recent jirgas say the Haqqanis are already establishing a foothold in Kurram.�Again, Rahimullah Yousefzai.

Mr. YOUSEFZAI: I think the Haqqanis know that if there is a military operation they could be harmed.�So why not try to find a secure place before the action begins? If they cannot move into Afghanistan, they will try to find some place in Pakistan, some other place.

MCCARTHY: The Haqqani network's center of activity in Afghanistan lies just across the border from Kurram.�One prominent Shiite, who is in close contact with members of the jirgas, said the Haqqanis have demanded a safe corridor to Afghanistan. But he says no member of the jirgas dares acknowledge that out of fear.�

Jirga Member Sajid Hussain Turi says the Haqqanis made no such request - yet.� But should they, the Shiite Parliamentarian says, they'll be rebuffed.

Mr. SAJID HUSSAIN TURI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Only local Shiite and Sunnis should have free movement, Turi says. No non-locals. And we will never accept any demand for free passage. Turi added, we can give life and take life as well. And we will not accept any pressure be it Haqqani or the Pakistani Taliban.

It may be that the Haqqani efforts at peacemaking ignite another conflict.�

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Abdul Sattar contributed to that report.��

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