Security forces launched a big operation in Darra Adamkhel on Friday following the refusal by the Taliban to return the five ammunition-laden trucks that they had seized two days ago.
It was difficult to obtain the precise casualty figures from the gun-manufacturing town located some 40 kilometres south of Peshawar on the road to Kohat. There were conflicting reports as to the losses suffered by the military and the militants.
The Pakistan Army had moved tanks, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and artillery guns to Darra Adamkhel on Thursday and deployed soldiers at the Government Degree College to reinforce the paramilitary Frontier Corps personnel sent there sometime back. The gunship helicopters and artillery guns were pressed into service on Friday to target the hideouts and positions of the militants.
The Darra Adamkhel road, which is normally very busy as it serves as a link between Peshawar and the southern NWFP, was closed to traffic due to the fighting. According to a rough estimate, more than 25,000 people, mostly women and children, shifted to Kohat and Peshawar to escape the fighting. As there was no transport on the road, the people had to flee by foot, said a tribesman. Long queues of stranded vehicles were also witnessed on both sides of the barricaded road on the Peshawar and Kohat sides.
The Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in a statement said the Frontier Corps on Friday started a search and cordon operation in Darra Adamkhel for the recovery of the hijacked trucks, loaded with arms and other supplies, and to clear the area of miscreants.
It said the security forces cleared important heights in the south of Spina Thana and killed some 25-30 miscreants. It said fire was also exchanged at Kohat Tunnel and security forces checked the movement of the miscreants in the area. It admitted that two FC personnel were killed and 10 others were injured in the clashes.
The ISPR statement said a group of six hired civilian trucks carrying stores and supplies, including some ammunition for the FC, were intercepted by the miscreants at Darra Adamkhel and four of them were hijacked. It said the political administration made efforts for the recovery of the trucks through a Jirga. “When the political administration failed to recover the trucks through a Jirga, the paramilitary security forces launched a search operation,” the statement said.
Military sources, subsequently, claimed that up to 37 suspected militants were killed in Friday’s clashes. They said the Army used at least 20 tanks and several gunship helicopters to target the alleged hideouts and roadblocks of Taliban. The sources, however, denied that the security forces suffered losses and rejected the claims of the Taliban to this effect.
A spokesman for Darra Adamkhel-based Taliban told The News that they were holding 30 Pakistan Army soldiers hostage after attacking the radar post of the military on the Kohat Tunnel and killing 19 troops. Identifying himself as Abu Yazeed, the spokesman said their military commander Abdul Jabbar was leading the Taliban operations. He said the Taliban fighters had also taken control of the old FC fort at the top of Kotal Post overlooking Darra and Kohat and freed the 40 paramilitary soldiers after they laid down their arms. He also claimed that their fighters shot down a helicopter with Zikoyak machinegun fire and it fell in the mountains behind Akhurwal village. He insisted that only two Taliban fighters were wounded in the fighting. He said two tribesmen were killed and several children fleeing the fighting sustained injuries. He accused the security forces of bombing and shelling populated areas and contributing to the sufferings of the people.
The claims made by the Taliban spokesman could not be independently confirmed. Military officials outright rejected these claims. Earlier, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Maulvi Omar made different claims altogether. He said at least eight security forces personnel were killed and another 14 were made hostage. He alleged that the armed forces started firing at the Taliban posts in the early hours of Friday. “Our fighters were caught unaware. But they retaliated by attacking the military’s radar post on the top of Kohat tunnel on Darra Adamkhel side. Seven soldiers were killed in the attack and 14 were taken hostage.”
He said the Taliban also killed one FC soldier and injured four others in an attack near the Akhurwal Post. He rejected the official claim of killing 37 militants and claimed the five trucks loaded with ammunition were still in the Taliban hands. He said the gunship helicopters bombarded civilian areas and damaged a bridge on the Indus Highway.
Tribal sources said five Pakistan Army tanks supported by gunship helicopters started attacking five posts of suspected militants in the Akhurwal area from the Government High School, Akhurwal. They said four posts were quickly taken out while the troops faced stiff resistance from the fifth one, which too was cleared by Friday afternoon.
According to tribal sources, the district administration had deputed a tribal Jirga for negotiations with the Taliban for the recovery of the ammunition-laden trucks. The political administration also requested two noted religious clerics, Maulana Sher Ali Shah of Darul Uloom Haqqania, Akora Khattak, and Maulana Sher Bahadur of Darra Adamkhel to talk to the militants and prevail upon them to return the trucks and ammunition. The administration had set the deadline of 10 am Friday for the Taliban to return the trucks or be ready for military action.
The sources said tanks had also moved towards the positions set up by the Taliban from Mirwat post. The Darra Adamkhel bazaar remained closed Friday. The Indus Highway too was blocked from both Peshawar and Kohat sides. Curfew was imposed on the town, which was relaxed for sometime in the afternoon, allowing the local tribesmen to shift to safer places. There were reports that a telephone tower was damaged near Sheraki area. It wasn’t clear whether it was hit by the security forces or the Taliban.