Gun and mortar fire sounded, as Pakistani Army moved in troops to wrest control of the Swat valley from the Taliban, and fears of an impending battle triggered a major exodus with thousands of men, women and children fleeing the area.
Army helicopters gunships attacked Taliban positions in an around Mingora, the main town as the militants seized government buildings and laid mines on the towns main approaches.
The impending hostilities signalled the collapse of three-month-old truce between the extremist Taliban and the provincial government. Fearing a major operation, the first wave of exodus began, which the authorities said could reach a staggering 500,000 people.
Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas refused to say whether the gunfire heralded the start of the major operations merely saying, "all contingencies have been worked out". As clashes rocked the entire Swat valley, the expansion of the Pakistan Army's operation will test its ability to counter a guerrilla warfare as also the resolve of the civilian leadership to fight the Taliban, who till recently were its partners in peace.
Three militants were killed and a policeman was injured in fresh clashes. Militants occupied the offices of the local mayor and deputy inspector general of police and surrounded the residence of the commissioner of Malakand division on Wednesday. The security forces shelled militant hideouts while the Taliban fired rockets and mortar shells at government buildings and police posts.
Earlier, the Taliban had taken up positions across Swat, attacked security check posts and surrounded the circuit house, police station and a power station in Mingora, the main city in the valley. Reports said militants had besieged 46 security personnel at the power station.
Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed the militants were in control of "90 per cent" of Swat. He said the militants were acting in response to the army's "violations of the peace deal".
The military, which has accused the Taliban of violating the accord by abducting and killing civilians and security personnel, said it is awaiting instructions from the government for launching a full-fledged operation in the region located 160 km from Islamabad. After the district administrationon Tuesday asked people to leave Mingora and several other towns as soon as possible, about 40,000 people flooded out of Swat when curfew was eased from 1330 hrs to 1900 hrs. Reports said militants took advantage of the relaxation of curfew to occupy government offices and attack a police station in Saidu Sharif, a key town in Swat.
At least 18 people, including three militants and two security personnel, were killed and 20 others injured in clashes on Tuesday, The News daily reported. A majority of those killed were civilians caught in the crossfire or shelling by militants and security forces, reports said.Security forces shelled militant positions overnight in several areas in Swat, including Khwazakhela and Qambar, which are considered Taliban strongholds. Media reports said scores of houses were destroyed in the shelling.
The North West Frontier Province government has accused the Taliban of not honouring their commitments under the peace deal despite the administration's move to set up Shariah or Islamic law courts in Malakand division, which includes Buner, Dir and Swat districts.
NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said up to 500,000 people were expected to flee Swat. Authorities allocated Rs 140 million for relief programmes while Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani approved an allocation of Rs 500 million to speed up relief activities for "internally displaced persons" in NWFP. He also approved a supplementary grant of Rs 8 million for procuring food for the displaced people on an emergency basis.