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Troops on the offensive in Darra, occupy militants’ stronghold

January 26, 2008

DARRA ADAMKHEL/ KOHAT, Jan 25: Troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, launched an operation in Darra Adamkhel on Friday after local militants refused to hand over army’s four ammunition trucks they had seized on Wednesday. The militants are also holding hostage five Frontier Corps personnel they had kidnapped a fortnight ago.

The operation was launched after failure of talks held with the help of a jirga for the retrieval of the trucks and release of the hostages.

Also on Friday, the militants occupied the famous Kohat FC Fort.

A jirga intervened to get the fort vacated, but the militants returned the weapons they had taken away but refused to leave the fort till the army withdrew from the area. The troops hit back and destroyed the fort with the help of gunships. Several militants were reported to have been killed in the attack.

In Darra Adamkhel, security forces took control of the militant stronghold of Akhorwal after a fierce battle.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said that the Frontier Corps had cleared important heights in the south of Spina Thana and claimed that between 25 and 30 militants had been killed.

An exchange of fire near the Kohat Tunnel and the Frontier Corps held off militants’ advance in the area. According to the ISPR, two paramilitary soldiers were killed and 10 others injured in the operation.

Local people said that security forces had cleared the Akhurwal area of militants and started advancing towards the main Darra town. Large-scale displacement of people was reported and families moved away to Peshawar and nearby areas.

Residents of Darra said that firing had stopped at about 6.30pm when security forces captured five bunkers of the militants in Akhurwal, some 30km south of Peshawar.

Tanks pounded the hills around Akhorwal after militants blew up a bridge on the Indus Highway near Darra Adamkhel and a PTCL tower on a hilltop. Reports reaching here indicated that three security men, including a subedar and two soldiers, were killed in the mortar attack on the tower, while 13 others were injured.

In Kohat, some local sub-clans covertly assured their support to the government against militants but could not speak out openly, fearing reprisals.

The political agent of the Frontier Region of Kohat, Mr Kamran Zeb, said he was optimistic that the fighting would end soon and the matter of the snatched trucks would be settled without further bloodshed.

He said they had tried their best to avert the operation, adding that they had sent five jirgas to the militants but all efforts had failed to be futile because of their refusal to hand over the trucks.

He said he still believed that fighting was not the solution, adding that innocent people were suffering because of the operation, which had been launched mainly because of the rigid attitude of the militants.

Helicopter gunships also attacked hideouts in Akhorwal, Tor Chappar and Sheraki areas from where personnel of security forces were being attacked. In the morning, militants continuously attacked the Friendship Tunnel in a bid to block the army’s supply line from the south, but troops successfully defended the strategic place although militants had come quite close to it.

The army cordoned off an area of about one-kilometre radius around the tunnel after receiving reports that militants might try to damage the tunnel by sending a suicide bomber in a vehicle.

The in-charge of forces guarding the tunnel, Maj Sabir, told Dawn that they had been ordered to shoot any vehicle trying to cross the barbed wire along the offices of the NHA in Kohat.

A Taliban spokesman claimed capturing 13 soldiers and killing more than a dozen. But the report could not be confirmed independently.

The gunship fire was continuing till the filing of this report and the authorities were expected to call off the operation tomorrow if the militants did not attack Kohat or army posts.

The Kohat cantonment was sealed and all entry passes were cancelled.

In the night, thousands of tribesmen were trying to move away from the area to Kohat. They made a temporary stopover near Gulshanabad checkpost where they were in the open without warm clothes and food.

However, some local people brought milk and biscuits and also provided transport to the people who were trying to go to Kohat on foot.

Thousands of people are still trapped in the area where the fighting is raging.

The administration is trying to engage militants in talks, fearing collateral damage in case a full-scale assault is launched.

The intensity of the resistance from the militants’ side indicated that the operation might continue for a day or two if they received support from other parts of the tribal belt.