By M Ilyas Khan
Lower Dir, Pakistan
The Taleban have not left Lower Dir
A day after Pakistan announced an end to a military operation in the north-western district of Lower Dir, confusion reigns in the area.
Government forces moved into the Maidan area of Lower Dir on Sunday to flush out militants and to plug the routes that link up with the Taleban-occupied Bajaur region to the west.
On Tuesday, the army announced the objectives had been achieved.
Many displaced families returned on Wednesday only to find the roads that connected to the Maidan region were still closed for traffic.
The soldiers allowed them to proceed on foot, which for many meant a trek of 20-30km (12-18 miles), mostly past towering mountains.
This is problematic for women and children.
Meanwhile, more families continue to trickle out of Maidan amid reports of continued artillery shelling from guns stationed in a paramilitary garrison in Timergara, the administrative centre of Lower Dir.
The bridge across the Panjkora river at Odigram, which connects one of three main exit routes from Maidan, has until recently been a favourite spot for picnickers because of the scenery and its fishing restaurants.
Civilians have struggled to escape the fighting
For the last three days, it has become a site for half a dozen relief camps set up by local aid agencies to feed people displaced from Maidan and to transport them to safer areas in or outside the district.
Maidan is the native region of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a locally influential cleric who recently brokered a peace deal between militants in neighbouring Swat district and the government of North West Frontier Province, of which both Swat and Dir are a part.
The region is a maze of high mountain valleys with a population of about 300,000 people who live in more than 200 villages.
Officials say some of these villages had become the hotbeds of the local Taleban, who indulged in kidnappings-for-ransom and attacked government officials.
They had also been running a training camp in one of the valleys, they say.
Syasat Khan, the organiser of one of the camps at Odigram bridge, estimates that more than 20,000 people have crossed the bridge since Sunday.
Many more have fled via the other two routes, he says.
Until Tuesday the security forces had blocked all traffic into Maidan, but were allowing outbound traffic carrying families to safety.
They have now closed traffic both ways.
Inamur Rahman, a resident of Timergara town on Wednesday walked 15km to his sister's house in a Maidan village, but returned in late afternoon after seeing at least four artillery shells hit the mountain-tops.
He says at one spot he also heard intense rifle fire but did not see the combatants.
He says there were very few men, and hardly any women and children in the villages he passed.
Nearby, a group of women and children quietly chatter as they try to squeeze into the back of a pickup truck.
A man accompanying them says they are frustrated because they have travelled 120km (74 miles) in the back of the truck to get back to their homes, but now they have to turn around.
"The soldiers wouldn't let our vehicle pass, so we decided to walk. But then my brother, whom we had left behind to look after the house, rang me on my mobile phone to tell me the shelling was going on, and that we should go back."
Six kilometers south of Odigram bridge, Timergara town is unusually quiet.
The bridge across the river at Odigram has become a site for relief camps
After two days of closure, markets only partially reopened on Wednesday. And there is hardly any traffic on the streets.
"Business in Timergara has lost millions of rupees since Sunday," says Haji Anwaruddin, the president of Timergara's traders' association.
"People are not interested. Those who have relatives in Maidan are worried about their well being. Others are worried that the fighting may spread closer to the city."
The occasional booming of artillery guns from the nearby garrison is adding to the fear.
Worryingly, Maidan is not the only problem area in Lower Dir.
The government's writ seems non-existent for nearly 20km from the southern tip of the district.
Between the southern town of Chakdara and the village of Talash, we encountered very little traffic, most of which was outbound, carrying displaced families.
At a couple of points we negotiated road blocks apparently set up by the police during the preceding weeks, but there were no policemen to be seen.
And no army or paramilitary troops.
A senior official in Timergara, requesting anonymity, said the area east of Chakdara-Talash sector, which links up with the Kabal sub-district of Swat, is controlled by the Taleban.
"They also sometimes set up checkpoints on the main road to check vehicles," he said.
Many people are afraid that a Swat-like situation may emerge in Lower Dir, involving fighting without end.
"When the government announced the end of operations yesterday, we were hopeful that things will get back to normal," says Haji Anwaruddin.
"But now we know they are bluffing. They want the world to know that fighting has ended when it hasn't. I think we are in for a long haul."