PESHAWAR, March 5: Security forces regained control of government buildings and installations after a fierce artillery duel with local Taliban in Miramshah on Sunday, officials said. However, there were reports of sporadic clashes continuing in the area.
The officials said that troops had expelled Taliban elements from the government buildings after a nightlong battle in which Cobra helicopter gunships were also used.
A senior military official said militants were still in control of a small pocket of Miramshah bazaar and expressed the hope that they would be ‘wiped out’ by Monday noon.
“There have been small engagements in Mirali and Miramshah but considering the heavy fighting on Saturday, these were insignificant,” the official said.
The official said that security forces would begin active patrolling in the area from Monday.
Sources said that army and paramilitary troops had blocked the Mirali-Miramshah road and all roads and communication links had been cut off.
NWFP Governor’s Secretariat (Fata) Secretary Arbab Shehzad told Dawn that security forces had launched a clean-up operation and taken over all government buildings, including the telephone exchange and degree college in the troubled town.
“Forces have secured positions and now we have decided to go after militants, because they have challenged the writ of the government,” Mr Shehzad said, adding that efforts were under way to restore the telephone exchange in a day or two.
Meanwhile, Governor Khalilur Rehman on Sunday presided over a high-level meeting to review the situation.
It was noted in the meeting that the forces demonstrated extreme restraint to avert an armed clash and bloodshed but had to respond when the Miramshah Fort, where the forces had gathered, was attacked.
The meeting reiterated the government’s resolve to respond to such provocative acts with full might and ensure the writ of the government at all costs.
In a related development, authorities in the Frontier Region, Bannu, convened a meeting of local elders and warned them against giving shelter to ‘miscreants’ from North Waziristan.
Security has also been beefed up in Bannu district amid reports that civilians were leaving the embattled Miramshah for other places, using various routes to avoid road blockades set up by the Taliban and the security forces.
Agencies add: Army helicopters pounded mountains near the Afghan border on Sunday and troops exchanged gunfire with militants.
Helicopter gunships fired rockets into mountains to the east of Miramshah on Sunday morning, but there were no reports of casualties, a resident said.
Virtually all of the town’s shops were boarded up and streets and markets deserted. A bank attacked and set on fire in Saturday’s fighting was a smouldering ruin, he said.
Meanwhile, a large number of of people lugging bags and bundles of clothes fled the town, witnesses said.
Hundreds of villagers — men, women and children — fled Miramshah on foot on Sunday, carrying suitcases and bundles of clothes. Vehicles weren’t allowed in or out of the town, so people had to walk 15 kilometres to a security checkpoint, where they could find transport.
Noor Nawaz, 25, who runs a shop of auto parts, said he and his family had spent a sleepless night because of the fighting. Mortar and artillery fire thundered overnight and helicopters could be heard flying until dawn.
“People are extremely scared. Nobody has slept. Children were crying,” he said as he fled from the town with his wife and three children.
A man who claimed to speak for the militants called a western news agency by satellite phone from an undisclosed location and said that 55 soldiers had been killed and 14 captured.
The purported spokesman, Maulvi Abdul Ghafoor, warned that fighting would spread to other areas of the region if troops did not withdraw. It wasn’t immediately possible to verify Mr Ghafoor’s identity.Continued on Page 3