KHAAR, Aug 9: Security forces on Friday night pulled out of Lowi Sam area of the Bajaur tribal region after fierce clashes with militants. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in the three-day gunbattle.

Eyewitnesses said the situation was chaotic and the area was littered with bodies and burnt vehicles. They said the soldiers, who had been under siege for the past three days, had returned to their base in Khaar, leaving behind bodies, trucks and a large quantity of arms and ammunition.

For the first time, the troops backed by helicopter gunships and tanks, fought a pitched battle with militants in Bajaur to flush out the Taliban from the area bordering Afghanistan.

The Taliban said they had handed over 22 soldiers and bodies to tribal elders in Sadiqabad. However, a political agent told Dawn that the administration had sent officials and elders to the area for negotiations to retrieve the bodies.

Officials said that the fighting had stopped after troops left Lowi Sam, some 12kms west of Khaar.

According to a statement of the Frontier Corps’ Headquarters in Peshawar, the forces had “successfully” broken the siege and linked up with their base in Khaar.

It said the militants had suffered heavy casualties in an exchange of fire with the troops in Dhilai, near Khaar. Eight soldiers were killed and 15 others injured in the fighting, the statement added.

Sources said that paramilitary soldiers had suffered heavy casualties and lost two tanks and several vehicles loaded with arms and ammunition. They said the militants had also captured a number of soldiers and set on fire their vehicles in Lowi Sam.

An official told Dawn in Peshawar that 55 soldiers had gone missing in the Lowi Sam fighting.

The Taliban claimed that 80 to 100 soldiers had been killed and about 35 held hostage.

Tehrik-i-Taliban’s spokesman Maulvi Umar told journalists by phone from an unspecified location that 25 vehicles, including two tanks and cranes, had been captured and 10 vehicles destroyed. He said the Taliban had lost five to ten of their men.

The security forces, backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers, had moved into Lowi Sam four days ago to take control of the area, which is considered a stronghold of the Taliban. About 200 soldiers, who entered the area, were encircled by the militants and their supply line was cut off.

Fighter jets and Cobra helicopters had heavily bombed militants’ positions to break the siege and rescue the soldiers.

Meanwhile, witnesses said that the jubilant Taliban celebrated their “victory against the forces” and announced cash prizes for their fighters. The exodus from Lowi Sam continued on Saturday. A large number of families have moved to Peshawar and the adjacent Mohmand tribal region.

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