DARRA ADAM KHEL/ KOHAT, Jan 26: Security forces killed 26 militants who had assembled near the Friendship Tunnel, on the Indus Highway, in a fresh offensive on Saturday morning, senior officials said.
In two days of clashes, 59 militants and four soldiers have been killed, the officials said.
Locals said that heavy artillery shelling and firepower from Cobra helicopters rocked the Darra, the largest illicit gun-manufacturing town in the region.
The town is surrounded by three garrisons — Peshawar, Kohat and Cherat. It has become the hub of militants’ activities for the past one-and-a-half years.
Political Agent Kamran Zeb said the forces used a helicopter gunship to secure the tunnel.
The forces launched the operation in Darra Adam Khel on Friday after militants captured four army trucks full of arms and ammunition the previous day. The trucks were bound for South Waziristan.
The sources said that talks aimed at reaching a ceasefire agreement, facilitated by tribal elders, had failed after militants turned down an offer for unconditional ceasefire and surrender.
A tribal elder, Malik Saleem, told Dawn that Mangal Bagh, the head of a militant organisation in the neighbouring Khyber tribal region, had threatened that his supporters would enter the troubled town, hoisting white flags on their vehicles to stop clashes.
Residents of the besieged town have been directed by the operational commander of the security forces that non-combatant tribesmen should hoist white flags on their rooftops to avert “collateral damage” during the operation.
The sources said that the security forces were closing in on the Darra Adamkhel town from Kohat and Peshawar sides. Four helicopter gunships carried out intensive shelling of Mubarakkhel, Baashkhel, Paya and Mazeedkhel areas.
The security forces had also targeted an under-construction degree college for women in Mazeedkhel. The militants had captured the militants about a month ago and turned it into their “headquarters”.
The gunships also targeted houses of two militant commanders in Sheraki. Solehkhel valley also came under intense shelling from helicopters and the artillery.
A large number of tribesmen left the area for safe places on Saturday. Security forces sent reinforcements into the area. Power supply to all areas of Darra Adamkhel remained suspended.
The Indus Highway remained blocked and traffic was diverted to the Kohat-Rawalpindi road.
Witnesses said the militants had camouflaged their vehicles with mud, enabling them to move undetected.
A Taliban source said on Saturday that Mufti Ilyas, a militant ‘commander’, died on Saturday of injuries suffered in clashes the previous day.
A rocket fired by militants hit the wall of the old Commissioner House, damaging the wall but causing no casualties. The house is situated near the offices of the Kohat region’s deputy inspector general of police.
On Friday, three rockets fired by militants damaged a PTCL tower mounted on top of a tunnel while two other rockets hit the ground near an ammunition depot in Sheikhan area.
The two-kilometre Friendship Tunnel and Kohat city were for some time at the mercy of militants’ rockets and anti-aircraft guns.
The security forces were put on alert in Kohat following reports of a possible suicide bombing in the cantonment.
The area saw two suicide bombings last year. In the first attack, a suicide bomber killed 14 recruits near the Army Public College on Dec 17.
In another attack, on July 19, 20 people offering prayers in a mosque were killed and more than 50 injured when a suicide bomber struck the mosque inside an army compound.
Security forces fired at a van passing through the playground in the cantonment area, suspecting it to be driving by a suicide bomber and coming towards them, but they missed the target and the vehicle later turned out to be a school van.
Meanwhile, authorities have announced that the Army Public School and College would remain closed on Monday.
AGENCIES ADD: The operation is aimed at recovering the seized trucks, regaining control of the tunnel and reopening a major highway blocked by miscreants, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said.
He said miscreants were taking advantage of the situation and siding with militants.