PESHAWAR - The military authorities eased a curfew in a tribal area Wednesday to allow civilians to flee a major offensive against the militants, signalling a likely escalation in the campaign as the US hit the militants with drone strikes, killing six of them.

The phase-wise three-day relaxation in curfew comes in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) after six days of complete ban on any kind of movement and the Political Administration has asked tribesmen to leave for safer places.

It is believed that the relaxation of curfew and asking the people to leave the area was clear indication that an even bigger offensive against the foreign and local militants hiding in the area is going to begin soon. Security forces have already cordoned off Miranshah and Mir Ali.

The curfew, clamped on Sunday last when operation began, was relaxed on Wednesday morning and it was announced that people would be allowed to move from 5am to 7pm during the three days. Around 62,000 people have so far fled the NWA.

Of the remaining, it has been learnt that tribesmen of Mir Ali and Razmak have been asked to shift to safer places till Wednesday evening, residents of Miranshah and Ghulam Khan till Thursday evening and people of Datta Khel can leave the area even on day after tomorrow.

Tens of thousands of people had already fled the operation, which the military says has killed more than 200 militants, and a fresh exodus is under way. Around 30,000 people fled North Waziristan Wednesday, after authorities eased the curfew.

“Some 30,000 people arrived in Bannu from Mir Ali town of North Waziristan since this morning,” said Arshad Khan, director general of the Fata (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) Disaster Management Authority. He said 92,000 people have now fled North Waziristan since the military began air strikes against the Taliban last month.

In new wave of exodus more than 1,000 vehicles arrived in nearby district Bannu, where majority of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are taking refuge. Dozens of vehicles left for Mir Ali, where the curfew has been eased, so as to bring the tribesmen who were left behind due to curfew.

Registration of the IDPs is also continuing and Bannu district administration has made adequate arrangements for ensuring clean drinking water, fans, electricity, washrooms and others basic necessities of life at IDPs camps. However, most of the IDPs prefer to live with their relatives or in rented houses in different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, instead of living in camps.

Confirming phase-wise three-day relaxation in curfew, political agent Siraj Khan said that following government directives “we have lifted curfew so that local families may leave the area”. Addressing a press conference at Bannu commissioner office, Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) Abdul Qadir Baloch said that about 2,000 vehicles have been arranged on emergency basis for shifting of IDPs from NWA.

A senior security official said the curfew was lifted in NWA areas to let people flee ahead of a more concerted ground operation. “Miranshah and Mir Ali have already been cordoned off. Ground troops will move in after civilians move to safe places,” the official said.

“First ground troops will enter in major towns and will then move towards the suburban areas,” after strengthening their positions. “We will then go to the villages and to the mountains,” he added, saying the operation would continue until every militant had been eliminated. A second security official in the northwest confirmed the details.

On the other hand, at least six suspected militants were killed in two separate US drone missile strikes in Miramshah tehsil of North Waziristan on Wednesday morning, according to local officials. “US drones fired six missiles which hit three separate compounds in two villages, at least six militants have been killed,” a local security official in Miranshah said.

The attacks took place just minutes apart. Two drones fired four missiles in the first strike, then a third drone fired a further two missiles in the second attack, the official said. Another senior security official confirmed the strike and said that a vehicle parked in one compound was also hit, adding the death toll could rise.

The identity of the militants killed in the strike has not been confirmed, however, it is believed that five foreigners most probably Uzbeks and one Punjabi Taliban were among the dead. Earlier this month, two drone attacks killed 16 suspected militants in the NWA.

Strikes in the tribal area a week ago ended a nearly six-month hiatus in Washington’s controversial campaign against militants in Pakistan. Coming just days before Pakistan’s military operation ‘Zarb-i-Azb’, launched a week after an attack on Karachi airport, they also triggered talk of collaboration between the US and Pakistan.

Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies think-tank, said he believed the latest strikes were a further indication of cooperation. “What level (was the cooperation) and did Pakistan request it for specific target? That has to be seen,” Rana said. “So far the drone strikes are going on in the same area where the military is launching its operation, so we can see there is coordination.”

The number and identity of those killed in the military operation cannot be verified, and some residents who have fled the area spoke of civilian casualties from aerial bombing before the offensive officially began on Sunday. Aziz-ur-Rehman, a 42-year-old teacher at a school in Mir Ali, fled the town riding on the bonnet of a truck. “It’s like doomsday for people in Mir Ali, where death is everywhere since Saturday,” he said after arriving in Bannu.