SWAT / PESHAWAR, Oct 24: In a massive show of strength, the NWFP government on Wednesday deployed thousands of paramilitary and police personnel in the troubled district of Swat as part of a phased plan to reassert its writ in 59 villages of the district and curb the growing militancy.

Security forces set up checkposts and erected barricades to seal the once popular area from other districts and to take on a militant local cleric and his armed supporters.

Fear gripped the Matta, Sangota and Khwazakhela sub-districts of Swat which have been badly affected by militancy. Combat helicopters flew over the area and troops took positions on hilltops.

An official statement said the NWFP government had requisitioned troops, but they would be deployed when asked by the district administration.

Maulana Fazlullah, the local cleric who has also mobilised more than 2,000 armed volunteers, told followers on his FM radio that troops had been deployed to kill innocent people. He denied that he had challenged the writ of the government and set up a parallel administration.

Bazaars remained closed in Minorca, the district headquarters, and people feared that an operation was imminent.

Sources said that security forces had sealed the entire district and taken positions on hills and government buildings. Educational institutions have been closed in certain parts of the district for an indefinite period.

NWFP Home Secretary Badshah Gul Wazir and provincial police chief Sharif Verik said at a press conference in Peshawar that the government had no plans to launch an operation in Swat and wanted to resolve the issue by peaceful means.

“Anyone creating obstacle will be dealt with in accordance with the law,” Mr Wazir said. Maulana Fazlullah, he said, had also planned to appoint a governor for the region. He said the government would continue the process of negotiations to resolve the issue amicably.

He admitted that the government had lost its writ in 59 villages and supporters of the cleric had set up a parallel government.

He said the cleric had over 4,500 armed volunteers, he had set up an armed wing called Shaheen Force and established courts.

The home secretary said that foreign militants and members of the banned organisations were also hiding in the troubled area, adding that elders of Swat had requested the caretaker government to deploy troops in the district to re-establish the government writ.

He said that army would be on standby and would not directly take part in any operation.

Witnesses said that army and paramilitary forces had set up an outpost on Fizagut’s hillock near the Mingora city to keep an eye on the village of Maulana Fazlullah where he had set up his radio station.

Troops also took control of the Saidu Sharif airport and started patrolling the area.

Four wings of the Frontier Corps comprising 3,000 personnel, 16 platoons of the Frontier Constabulary and six platoons of the Frontier Reserve Police have been sent to Swat, officials said. Security forces also established checkpoints on main roads.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in a statement said that additional troops of Frontier Corps had been deployed in Mingora, Saidu Sharif and Matta areas of Swat district on the request of the NWFP government to maintain law and order and curb militant activities.

FC personnel, it said, had started patrolling certain parts of the districts.

AFP adds: Military spokesman Maj-Gen Waheed Arshad said: “We have deployed a little over 2,000 troops to assist police and civil administration in the district.”

He said the deployment was to tackle threats to law and order by Tahreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi gangs operating in the area. “It is not a military operation and the exercise is aimed at improving the law and order situation,” he added.

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