MIRAMSHAH, Aug 1: Eighteen people killed in a gunbattle with security forces near Miramshah on Tuesday were buried in the Mirali tehsil of the North Waziristan agency on Wednesday, while tribesmen rejected the official claim that the victims were militants.

Some 4,000 people attended the joint funeral prayer in the Patasi Adda area of the tehsil. Most of them said that the dead belonged to different villages in the tehsil. The atmosphere in the area was calm but tense.

Security forces had handed over the bodies to the political authorities in Miramshah on Tuesday night which were later dispatched to their villages. Tribesmen in Mirali said their dead clansmen were innocent, refuting the army’s claim that they had been involved in an attack on a security post in the Banda area.

ISPR director-general Maj-Gen Waheed Arshad insisted that the people killed were all militants who were carrying assault rifles and hand-grenades.

“Only militants can disobey the security personnel. What does it mean when a person refuses to identify himself at a checkpost? He is certainly a militant,” Gen Arshad told Dawn from Islamabad.

Local people said that 22 tribesmen were going from Mirali to Miramshah on foot because security forces had blocked the main road. They were to meet militant commander Maulvi Sadiq Noor.

A source said that Maulvi Sadiq distanced himself from the present uprising in the region after militants had scrapped a peace deal with the government. He said the Maulvi had developed a ‘good working relationship’ with the government and the local authorities had compensated him for his losses.

Officials claimed that two vehicles carrying militants were moving towards a paramilitary post in the Banda area. They said that despite warning shots the armed men continued their movement which resulted in the clash.

Residents of Datakhel and Miramshah villages where the gunfight took place also claimed that some 50 persons were missing. Announcements were made from a mosque asking the villagers to look for the missing people.

Mustafa, who was in the group and survived the assault, was quoted as saying that three soldiers carrying water from a canal near the Banda post rushed to their post after seeing them and started firing on them.

“Soon, there was fire from all sides. Helicopters also came and started shelling,” he was quoted as saying. Mustafa along with three others took shelter in a place near the canal after their companions were killed, the source said.

The locals said that the victims were carrying guns, but it did not mean that they were militants. “Carrying rifles and guns is a normal practice in the tribal areas,” Mahboob Khan of Mirali told Dawn.

The sources said that the Banda post was again attacked on Wednesday and five rockets were fired at the Wacha Bibi post in the Lawara Mandi area near the Afghan border on Tuesday night. One paramilitary soldier was wounded in the attack.

Two rockets were fired in Miramshah, hitting a hospital. No casualty was reported. The Miramshah town remained closed and Cobra helicopters were seen hovering over the area. Security forces fired at a group of the Tablighee Jamaat near Tochi river.

Meanwhile, the fate of four paramilitary soldiers kidnapped from the Bakakhel area of the Frontier Region Bannu on Tuesday was unknown till Wednesday evening.

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