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DAGGAR (Buner), May 17 Burnt vehicles, spent artillery shells and broken electric poles were strewn across the dusty road. There were devastated houses riddled with bullets and artillery shells all around.

A few young men sat chatting inside a tobacco shop which opened for some time on Sunday during a curfew break. On a corner of the main street, Amir Basha examined his devastated grocery shop. He had returned to the town on Sunday during the curfew break from Peshawar where he and his family have taken refuge after fleeing the fighting some three weeks ago. “I don't think my family can return home soon,” he muttered shaking his head in despair.

Ambela, a small mountainous town of some 10,000 inhabitants became the frontline in the military's battle against the Taliban. The troops have flushed out militants after fierce clashes which also forced almost the entire population to flee the town. But the militants still lurked in the mountains not far from there. “We fear that they may come back after the troops are withdrawn,” said Mr Basha.

A few families have trickled back after security forces relaxed curfew restrictions to allow farmers to harvest the wheat crop. “This is the only source of living for me and for my family,” said Rehman Gul, a 50-year-old farmer working in his small field with his two sons. But most of the crop may go waste as uncertainty and fear held back most farmers from returning home.

According to officials, more than half of Buner's 700,000 population have left there homes. They have joined another one million refugees from Swat and other conflict zones triggering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the country's 62-year history.

The government rushed some 5,000 army and paramilitary troops to Buner after the Taliban advancing from the neighbouring Swat valley seized control of the district which is famous for its fruit orchards and fertile land. The Taliban's offensive was embarrassing for the military and the weak civilian government.

Pakistani military said scores of militants had been killed in Buner. But the fighting is far from over. Hundreds of militants are still entrenched in Sultanwas and Pir Baba areas, just three miles from Daggar, the main town and administrative headquarters of Buner. The mountains echoed with the thunder of artillery fire at regular interval.

Life is slowly returning to Daggar and Swahri which have been least affected by the fighting but a deep feeling of unease was quite evident. People fear that fighting could resume with the Taliban still holding on in many parts of Buner.

“The militants are still controlling some key routes and villages,” conceded a nervous Yahya Akhunzada, the district DCO, sitting inside his heavily guarded office. He said there were some 350 militants, including some Arabs and Uzbeks, were holding on in Sultanwas which has become Taliban's main base in the region. It has also been described as 'Peochar' of Buner.

The militants were also controlling Pir Baba, another town where the shrine of highly revered Sufi saint is located. “Armed Taliban are patrolling the streets,” said Mohammed Khan, a local shopkeeper.

Mr Akhunzada said the situation was still tense. “We can only ask the people to return when the entire area is cleared,” he said. He expressed the hope that the militants would be driven out soon.

Officials fear that more militants could enter Buner as the army presses ahead in Swat. More than 15,000 troops are battling some 5,000 militants in the valley. The army has been preparing to take control of Swat's main town of Mingora where many of the estimated 5,000 Taliban fighters in the valley are believed to be holed up.

A major problem is to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed during the fighting. The supply of electricity, which comes through Malakand, cannot be restored without eliminating the militants from the entire region. Local officials said it would take months to restore power supply and the infrastructure even if the fighting stopped soon. And there is no sign of it happening soon.