WANA, April 16: People in the Azam Warsak area in South Waziristan began moving to safe locations on Friday as the five most wanted militants turned down an offer to lay down arms and surrender to the government.

Worried men accompanied by their womenfolk and children moved out of Azam Warsak, Shin Warsak and Zha Ghondai after a jirga seeking the surrender of the militants returned empty-handed.

Witnesses said the evacuation was an action-replay of the exodus seen following a bloody clash between militants and paramilitary forces in Kaloosha last month that had left 15 Frontier Corps troopers dead.

In Peshawar, the head of Inter-Services Public Relations, Maj- Gen Shaukat Sultan, sought to downplay reports of an impending operation. "We want to resolve the issue through talks and political process. We may use force but only as a last resort," he told a news briefing.

On Friday, this correspondent accompanied the 15-member Zalikhel and inter-tribal jirga that went to meet the five most wanted men in Gorgura, a hilly area about 20km to the west of the regional headquarters.

The jirga, including MNA Maulana Abdul Malik, Malik Bismillah, Malik Muhammad Ajmal, Malik Khanzada and Malik Ba' Khan, drove to the appointed place in a foot-hill guarded by about 25 militants who had taken positions armed with rocket propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles.

Malik Ba' Khan, a Zalikhel-Kakakhel tribal elder, conveyed to the militants the government's offer to lay down their weapons and surrender. He told the militants that the government had offered to let foreign militants live in the region if they too laid down their arms and local tribal elders gave guarantees of their future good conduct. "Otherwise, foreign militants should leave," he said.

Abdullah Mehsud, a man with an artificial leg, while speaking on behalf of the wanted men, refused to surrender. "Pakistan obeys the orders of the United States while we are subservient to Allah. We are willing to talk in accordance with the injunctions of Quran and Sunnah and the principles of riwaj," he told the jirga.

"We have no other option. We cannot break the commands of Allah. We wish to die and become martyrs and we are ready to die," a seemingly relaxed Mehsud told the jirga, which heard him in silence.

Nek Mohammad, one of the most-wanted militants accused of sheltering and supporting foreign militants, said they had been victims of military excesses. "Our houses have been demolished and our orchards ravaged," he said.

He denied sheltering foreign militants and vowed that they would never give up their arms and surrender. "This will never happen," he said. Disappointed Zalikhel elders plan to meet here on Saturday to decide on their future course of action. Wana Deputy Administrator Rehmatullah Wazir told Dawn that the Zalikhels had agreed to raise a lashkar of 1,950 men to take on the militants.

He said that the tribe had also agreed to let the government forces stay in their respective areas and verify and ensure that none of the local or foreign militants returned. He said that troops had been put on high alert to avert a possible attack from militants on the camp in Wana. "We expect militants to do some mischief now that the Zalikhels tribe has decided to take them on," he said.

Amid fears of another military action, hundreds of students held a rally in the Wana bazaar to call for peace. "We always rejoiced over the progress Pakistan made in defence. We never knew that one day we would become victims of the same weapons," a local student, Mohammad Nawaz, told participants of the rally.

He called upon the government to refrain from using force against innocent and unarmed people. AFP adds: Meanwhile, the jirga asked the government to extend its April 20 deadline to hand over tribesmen suspected of harbouring the Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, officials said.

A decision is expected on Saturday, they added. "A delegation of tribal elders asked us to extend the deadline as they have raised their down lashkar to take action against wanted tribesmen,"

Mr Rehmatullah Wazir told AFP. He said the jirga had also asked for permission that lashkar be allowed to carry arms while entering the suspected villages where the wanted tribesmen were believed hiding.

"We have allowed that their guns must carry symbolic red ribbons so that the security forces can identify that they are members of a tribal force on a mission to chase local and foreign militants," he said.

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