Mingora, Pakistan, Oct 28: Thousands of Pakistanis are fleeing a tense northwestern town and outlying villages amid fears of a showdown between the security forces and an Islamist militant Taliban-style movement, residents said.
The Swat valley in the North West Frontier Province was the scene of a fierce battle between security forces and followers of a radical Muslim cleric on Friday after authorities sent more than 2,000 soldiers to counter growing militancy.
At least 17 paramilitary soldiers and four civilians were killed in a suspected suicide attack near the valley's main town of Mingora on Thursday.
The militants killed seven civilians and decapitated three soldiers and three policemen they had taken hostage in the nearby town of Matta on Friday.
Fighting flared in the village of Charbagh, around 3 miles (5 km) west of Mingora on Sunday, when suspected militants fired at paramilitaries as they passed through the area.
Helicopter gunships fired in retaliation, but there was no word on any casualties, a local official said.
Residents said tension was also rising in another town, Khwazakhela, about 15 miles west of Mingora.
''People are leaving their homes. All shops and markets are closed,'' a scared resident of the town told Reuters by telephone, asking to remain anonymous for security reasons.
''The police and (paramilitary) Frontier Corps troops have taken positions in high buildings,'' he added.
Another resident, also asking to remain unnamed, said police were making announcements through loudspeakers urging residents to move to safer places while the militants were sending reinforcements to the town.
Badshah Gul Wazir, a top official at the provincial home ministry, said he was not aware of the exodus of the people from Khwazakhela but the atmosphere was tense in Swat valley.
''There has been no incident of firing, so far, but the situation is tense,'' he told Reuters. ''We are taking steps to restore peace in Swat as soon as possible.
Swat, a scenic valley close to Pakistan's lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, has seen a surge in militant activity since Maulana Fazlullah, a pro-Taliban cleric, reportedly launched an illegal FM radio station and urged a jihad, or Muslim holy war.
''MULLAH RADIO'' Fazlullah, known as ''Mullah Radio'', is de facto head of a pro-Taliban group, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) or Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law, which was banned by US ally President Pervez Musharraf in January 2002.
Authorities have blamed his militant followers for attacks on the security forces and carrying out bomb blasts in Swat where they have been forcing residents to follow a strict Islamic code.
''The government should implement Sharia in Swat if it does not want fighting,'' Muslim Khan, an aide to Fazlullah, told reporters on Saturday.
''We are ready to lay down our lives for Sharia.'' Pakistani tribal areas have been hotbeds of support for al Qaeda and Taliban militants who have fled neighbouring Afghanistan.
Violence has escalated across Pakistan since July, when militants scrapped a peace deal and the army stormed a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad.
On October. 19 at least 139 people were killed in a suicide attack in the city of Karachi during a procession led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on her return from eight years of self-imposed exile.
Suspected militants fired three rockets into the main northwestern city of Peshawar today but caused no casualties.