WANA, Jan 23: The army sent reinforcements, for the first time with tanks, to the troubled South Waziristan tribal region on Wednesday after clashes between security forces and militants intensified in the Mehsud area.

Official sources and local people said that the infantry, backed by tanks and heavy artillery, were seen heading towards the Spinkai Raghzai fort from a base in the adjoining Frontier Region of Jandola. Infantry units comprising 600 troops reached Spinkai Raghzai from Jandola amid fierce clashes.

“For the first time the movement of battle tanks has been seen in the area,” a security official said.

The sources said the troops had launched an operation in three areas — Makin, Spinkai Raghzai and Tiarza — inhabited by Mehsud tribesmen. They have been pounding militants’ hideouts with heavy and light artillery since Tuesday night while helicopter gunships were also seen flying over the area.

Loud explosions caused by artillery, rockets and missile attacks rocked the area. Two soldiers and four militants were killed in a gun-battle while nine security personnel suffered injuries. Security forces arrested five wounded militants in the Razmak area of the adjoining North Waziristan region.

Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) said that checkpoints and camps were being reinforced in the troubled region. It said that troops were targeting a stronghold of militants in Razmak and their hideouts in Tiarza. However, the official statement did not mention the movement of tanks in the area.

The statement said that two personnel were wounded in an explosion in Ghathundai and a convoy also came under fire near Jandola. No loss of life or damage to property was reported, according to the ISPR.

But unconfirmed reports said that five soldiers had been injured in the ambush and four of them were taken to a military hospital in Dera Ismail Khan.

One soldier was killed and two others were wounded when militants attacked forces in the Nawaz Kot area of North Waziristan.

As clashes intensified, militants’ spokesman Maulvi Umar told Dawn that the conflict could expand to other areas of Waziristan if the government did not halt the operation.

“We are ready to fight and will attack army anywhere in Waziristan.”

He claimed that security forces would not be able to what he called subjugate the tribal region and they would be forced to withdraw.

Meanwhile, pro-government commander Maulvi Nazir has invited the people displaced from the Mehsud area to come to the Ahmadzai Wazir.

“We welcome the displaced Mehsuds if they live peacefully in our area,” Maulvi Nazir said.

The pro-government commander, who is a staunch opponent of Uzbek militants, had asked the Mehsud tribesmen to leave the areas dominated by the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe after his offices were attacked early this month.

Meanwhile, on a call given by elders of the Mehsud tribe, a strike was observed in Tank and Jandola on Wednesday against the military operation. Bazaars and markets remained closed and processions were taken out.

A 35-member committee comprising Mehsud elders was set up to contact Pukhtoon nationalist and religious parties in the NWFP and Balochistan to get the army operation stopped in Waziristan.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (F) has given a call for a protest day in Tank on Friday against the operation.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s younger brother Attaur Rehman visited Tank on Wednesday and expressed sympathy with the tribesmen.

Our Correspondent adds from Miramshah: Militants attacked the base of Shawal Rifles in the Razmak area of North Waziristan on Wednesday.

Sources said the first attack, carried out at about 3am on Tuesday, left one soldier dead and two wounded. In another attack, two soldiers were killed and four others were wounded.

AGENCIES ADD: forcements are heading to the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border where government forces are trying to wipe out strongholds of a militant accused of killing opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

The announcement on reinforcements came a day after a top US commander met Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani, and after a week of militant attacks on paramilitary bases in the region and military counter-attacks.

“In the past one week there was an escalation in attacks by the militants ... therefore it was felt necessary to reinforce these forts,” military spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas said on Wednesday, referring to remote paramilitary bases.

He denied the military had launched an offensive against Mehsud and his men but said government forces wanted to clear out his hideouts once and for all.

“There is no offensive in the region but there are strongholds and hideouts of the militants and they are being engaged so they are knocked out of the area on a permanent basis,” he said.