MINGORA, Nov 23: Militants have vacated the Shangla district headquarters of Alpuri and taken positions on hills outside the town, bracing themselves for a major showdown.
Security forces claimed to be closing in on the area amid reports of stiff resistance and heavy casualties on both sides.
Local people said a severe food shortage caused by a blockade and intense artillery shelling could result in a major human disaster.
The forces also claimed to have arrested four militants, two of them in burqa, who were coming to the area along with two women and a child in a vehicle from Buner.
Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said the suspects — Noorul Huda, Hafiz Riazuddin, Said Ali Khan and Gul Basher of Buner — were being interrogated.
An army convoy reached Kanju during a 12-hour curfew in Swat and Malakand that ended at 2pm.
Meanwhile, troops continued to pound militants’ positions in Matta and Kabal areas of Swat and shelling on Imam Dehri, Koza Banda and Bara Banda areas was intensified in the evening.
A man was killed for violating curfew in Kabal. Local people said he was mentally deranged, but the forces claimed he was a ‘miscreant’ and that his accomplices had escaped.
People in Alpuri said the militants had quietly left the town but were entrenched on hilltops. They said fierce clashes in other areas had resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.
“This is not a retreat. This is a tactical move,” said militants’ spokesman Sirajuddin.
He said the government had claimed that there were only 500 to 800 militants in the area, but the security forces had already claimed of having killed more than that number during clashes over the past month.
At least three civilians were reported to have been killed and seven others injured in different areas.
Sporadic clashes continued in Machar, Wahabkhel, Kotki, Yukh Tanghi and Musakhel areas.
Around 150 small houses, mostly made of wood, were destroyed when artillery and mortar shells hit different areas in Shangla.
“We have been facing an acute food shortage and instead of pounding us with shells the security forces should drop food packets,” said Safiullah of Kotki. He said the entry of militants from Swat into Shangla was so sudden that the local people were not in a position to store foodstuff and other items of daily use. “Our people are now dying of starvation,” he said.
He said that except the town of Besham, all other major areas, including Alpuri, Chakesar and Puran sub-divisions, were facing food shortage.
The food situation in Swat has also worsened.
People continued to flee the embattled areas in large numbers. In Mingora, scores of families from Shangla were seen roaming around without proper food, warm clothes and footwear. They came here on foot through difficult mountain routes.
Some of the families have taken refuge with their relatives while a number of others are staying in a local bus stand.