LANDI KOTAL, March 28: Twenty-five people were killed and as many injured in fierce gunbattles between followers of two religious groups in Bara. The clashes at Sur Dand area in Khyber Agency started on Monday when supporters of cleric Mufti Munir Shakir laid siege to the house of a staunch follower of rival cleric Pir Saifur Rehman and took a serious turn on Tuesday.

Mufti Shakir and Pir Rehman ran illegal FM radio channels and the clerics, who used abusive language against each other in sermons on their channels, had left the tribal region some time ago under the government pressure.

Officials claimed the two were orchestrating violence to pressurise the administration into allowing their return to the region.

The officials said the clash started when workers of Lashkar-i-Islam, formed by Mufti Shakir’s supporters, asked inmates of the house of Bacha Jee, the follower of Pir Saifur Rehman, to surrender, which they refused. In the ensuing gunbattle, which lasted eight hours, seven Lashkar men were killed and 25 others injured.

The administration with the help of a jirga was able to enforce a ceasefire. However, officials said, the Lashkar men on Tuesday violated the agreement and made a pre-dawn attack on the house.

Sources said that the Lashkar’s activists captured and killed 18 men and took an unspecified number of women and children hostage. The house was set ablaze and later demolished.

Witnesses said that the hands of some of the dead had been tied to their backs and some other bodies had been charred.

The dead included six members of the family of Bacha Jee and the rest were Afghans, officials said.

Addressing reporters in Nala Malik Din Khel area, the self-proclaimed commander of Lashkar-i-Islam, Mangal Bagh, accused Pir Rehman’s supporters of providing shelter to terrorists. He said the ‘clean-up operation’ against such elements would continue.

Mangal Bagh said the Lashkar wanted to flush out the ‘remnants’ of Pir Rehman from Bara, adding “we have no ill-will towards the government”.

Markets and bazaars in the area were closed and the situation was tense.

In order to defuse the situation, the administration was holding talks with elders to secure release of women captives.

“We are not against Afghan refugees and we do not want to expel them. The clashes took place due to differences in the religious beliefs of the two clerics,” said Haji Zareef, a tribal elder.

Our Peshawar Bureau adds: Federally Administered Tribal Areas Security Secretary Sikandar Qayyum said at a news briefing that efforts were being made to establish the writ of the government in the area.

“We are open to talks but will take punitive action against those who are creating the trouble,” he said.

He said an area of one kilometre radius had been sealed off, adding that “the number of casualties may be higher as the rubble of the house is yet to be cleared.”

Mr Qayyum conceded that a delayed action on the part of the government had encouraged both the groups, but said the government was, in fact, trying to hammer out a solution to resolve the matter through jirgas.

“We use artillery gunfire as the last resort,” he said.

He said that security forces were on high alert and added that two suspects had been arrested and a search was going on to net others.

He said the administration was unaware about the whereabouts of Pir Rehman and Mufti Shakir.

A senior official said it was unclear as to why the FC had not taken action despite directives from Governor Khalilur Rehman to take strict action against miscreants.

He said the Frontier Corps had been asked to retrieve the bodies by force, take control of the Bara Bazaar and tehsil and stop Mufti Shakir’s supporters from gathering at four places.

“None of those things happened. The paramilitary did not leave Fort Slope in Bara at all and we really do not know why,” the official said.

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