PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistan took a key step on Thursday to bring the country's remote northwestern tribal areas into its mainstream judicial and political system, as a U.S. drone strike in the lawless region killed two suspected militants from a Taliban-allied faction, officials said.
Later in the evening, the military said troops killed four militants in a gunbattle in the area of Bannu, near the North Waziristan tribal region, and that the exchange also left two soldiers dead.
Under the five-year plan adopted by the Cabinet, the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan will be merged with Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, making the residents equal in the eyes of law for the first time since 1947, when Pakistan gained independence from Britain.
The tribal regions have been the scene of CIA drone strikes and Pakistani army operations in recent years as militants fleeing from Afghanistan set up sanctuaries there. Thousands of foreign and domestic militants have also been killed there since Islamabad became any ally of Washington in the war on terror.
After a 2014 offensive, Pakistan said it regained control of the area, which had also served as the headquarters of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif unveiled the reforms at Thursday's Cabinet session, stressing that the tribal people are entitled to equal rights. The reforms are meant to allow them equal opportunity as other Pakistanis in pursuing jobs, having access to the Pakistani legal system, educational and government institutions.
Prominent legal expert Babar Wan said that once the reforms are implemented, people from the tribal regions would for example, be able to sue U.S. authorities before Pakistani courts over the killings of their relatives in drone strikes.
Pakistanis have widely despised the drone strikes, arguing that they kill innocent civilians — along with the militants.
Wan told The Associated Press that the "notorious Frontier Crimes Regulation, a draconian colonial-era law and under which entire tribes used to be punished for crimes committed by individuals, will be abolished" under the reforms.
The prime minister's adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, said later Thursday that the tribal people will be able to vote in 2018, when the next parliamentary elections are due in Pakistan.
Earlier in the day, a suspected U.S. drone strike in the Kurram tribal region killed two members of the Haqqani network, according to three Pakistani intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The tribal regions are off limits to the media and the report could not be independently confirmed.
Also on Thursday, police shot and killed a "hearing-impaired vendor" they suspected of being a suicide bomber in the northwestern city of Mardan, said police officer Mumtaz Khan.
The man was riding a bicycle and didn't stop at a checkpoint outside a courthouse. The man died later and no explosives or weapons were found on him, Khan said.
Pakistani police have been on high alert after a recent string of suicide bombings that have killed more than 125 people, the latest of them inside a court building in another northwestern city. Pakistani Taliban-linked militants and the Islamic State group have claimed the recent attacks.
The rugged tribal regions along the Afghan border have historically been ruled by local tribal laws and have effectively been beyond Pakistani police and judicial authority.
Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.