As Pakistani soldiers continued conduct search operations to capture militants after clashes with the Pakistani Taliban, residents in Chitral city, close to Afghanistan's eastern border, organised a peace march.
Thursday’s demonstration called for the restoration of tranquility to the picturesque district that often attracts both local and foreign tourists.
It is one of a growing number of peace marches in northern Pakistan in recent months, after a sharp rise in attacks by Tahrik-e-Taliban, or TTP. The increased violence comes after failed peace talks between the group and the government in November.
The militant group has also received a boost following the collapse of the Afghan army in 2021, when US-led forces left Afghanistan and the Taliban government returned o power in the country.
Thousands of tonnes of weapons are said to have gone to the militant groups on either side of the border.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Pakistani military confirmed that the TTP attacked two check-posts near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the Kalash area of Chitral district on September 6.
They reported the deaths of 12 militants and four soldiers in the exchange of gunfire, with “a large group of terrorists".
Chairman of the local Movement for the Protection of the Rights of Chitral, Pir Mukhtar, told The National that the march’s goal is reclaiming peace in the region.
Mr Mukhtar called for the authorities to send the Chitral Scouts and Frontier Constabulary – a local security force from the Chitral region.
“We now need them in our own district. Our Chitrali personnel are better acquainted with the terrain and can more effectively manage security in the border areas," he said.
"When we face trouble, we insist on having our Chitrali security personnel for our protection.”
He also expressed concern about reports of TTP militants amassing near the border area and questioned why security forces had not taken action earlier to prevent them from entering Chitral.
Mr Mukhtar revealed that the local administration had requested the cancellation of the peace march, but approximately 900 people participated, vowing to stage another march within a week if their demands remained unmet.
Addressing claims by the TTP spokesman that the people of Chitral support the militants, Mr Mukhtar asserted that Chitral's residents are peaceful and have consistently opposed militants.
Speaking to The National, the Deputy Commissioner of Lower Chitral district Muhammad Ali stated that security personnel were currently engaged in searching the border area where the shoot-out had occurred.
However, he said that the situation is currently under control.
Meanwhile, an anonymous security official told The National that the operation had not yet concluded. He emphasised the inherent difficulties of conducting such operations in border areas characterised by dense forests and rugged terrain.
Discussing the border areas, he said that Chitral’s Bamboret area shares a border with Afghanistan's Kunar province, once the scene of fierce fighting between US and Afghan troops against the Taliban.
He said the local population was well-educated and would support security forces, preventing militants from establishing a foothold in Chitral.
He also mentioned that militants have strongholds in the Kunar and Nuristan areas across the Afghan border.
He also said fencing off the border area would probably not be an option, due to the region's challenging terrain and snowfall, making it impractical and costly.
"A fence also needs to be monitored by personnel. Simply installing a fence would not work," he said. In the Kunar area, former chief of the TTP, Maulvi Fazlullah, was killed in a US drone strike in 2018.
In a similar attack in August 2011, the Taliban entered the Arando area of Chitral and killed 32 security personnel, including police officers.
However, Wednesday’s large-scale operation is the first of its kind in Chitral region, that had remained peaceful in the past.
The TTP have escalated their attacks in the western regions of Pakistan that share a border with Afghanistan since the fragile truce between the government and the group collapsed in November 2022.