(Updates with military comment)
By Junaid Khan
MINGORA, Pakistan, Oct 28 Thousands of Pakistanis are fleeing a northwestern town and outlying villages because they fear a showdown between the security forces and an Islamist militant Taliban-style movement, residents said.
The Swat valley in the North West Frontier Province has been the scene of fierce fighting between security forces and followers of a radical Muslim cleric on Friday after authorities sent more than 2,000 soldiers to counter growing militancy.
Ten militants were killed in clashes on Sunday by troops backed by helicopter gunships, army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.
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.
"Troops have their own mortars and have been firing at those militants," Arshad said. "These are the same people who beheaded those civilians and dragged their bodies in the bazaar."
"Until such time as these people are evicted from the area and peace is restored and innocent people are given full security, I think this is going to continue."
Fighting flared in the village of Charbagh, 3 miles (5 km) west of Mingora on Sunday, when suspected militants fired at paramilitaries.
Residents said tension was also rising in another town, Khwazakhela, 15 miles (25 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 added the atmosphere was tense in Swat valley.
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 holy war.
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 in January 2002.
Authorities have blamed his militant followers for attacks on the security forces and 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.
Pakistani tribal areas have been hotbeds of support for al Qaeda and Taliban militants who have fled 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.