ABC : Inside Rebel Pakistan Cleric's Domain

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Inside Rebel Pakistan Cleric's Domain

Militants Guard Domain of Rebel Cleric's Vast Seminary in Volatile Northwest Pakistan

By RIAZ KHAN | The Associated Press | October 27, 2007

SWAT, Pakistan -- Long-haired militants with assault rifles and walkie-talkies guard the approach to the stronghold of Maulana Fazlullah, the radical cleric whose mission to spread fundamentalist Islam has provoked a bloody showdown with Pakistan's government.

Beyond the checkpoint, down a narrow track winding through orchards and by the clear blue waters of the Swat River, an Associated Press reporter was granted access to a sprawling seminary beyond state control, behind the new front line in Pakistan's faltering campaign against Islamic extremists.

Inside is a mosque and a maze of dozens of rooms, many still under construction. A shop sells audio cassettes of speeches by Fazlullah, who has earned the nickname "Mullah Radio" for his pirate FM broadcasts urging followers to wage holy war against America and its allies.

Six years after President Gen. Pervez Musharraf joined the U.S.-led war on terror, pro-Taliban militants are gaining sway across a swath of the country's northwest near Afghanistan.

Officials said Saturday that Fazlullah's followers killed 13 captives six security personnel and seven civilians in apparent retaliation for an assault on Fazlullah's stronghold, where security forces backed by helicopters and militants traded fire using rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other weapons.

At least three people died in the clashes.

Jehangir Khan, a local resident, said he saw six beheaded bodies, with notes attached reading: "It is the fate of an American agent. Whoever works for America will face the same fate."

"The civilians were killed to terrorize the people. They say they were either informers or were supporting the government side," Badshah Gul Wazir, the top security official of North West Frontier Province, told the AP by telephone from Peshawar, the provincial capital.

While scores of militants lurked outside the seminary, the concrete complex near the village of Imam Dheri was largely empty Saturday.

Fragments of rockets and shells that had been fired by security forces were displayed outside the complex, which appeared undamaged. Security forces were still posted on overlooking hilltops.

In a back room, Fazlullah's spokesman, Sirajuddin, was cagey about his leader's whereabouts. "He is here and we are in contact," Sirajuddin told an AP reporter and two local journalists. He was constantly interrupted by calls on two cell phones.

After the government deployed 2,500 paramilitary troops in Swat, once famed as a tourist resort, a suicide bomber hit a truck carrying soldiers Thursday in the district's main town, killing 20.

The gray-bearded Sirajuddin, who goes by only one name, denied his movement's involvement in the bombing, and claimed that local villagers sympathetic to the militants had executed the abducted men whose bodies were found Saturday. Still, he threatened that militants could resort to such tactics in response to government action.

"If a military operation starts against us there will be suicide attacks as well as a guerrilla war," he said.

Sirajuddin laid out Fazlullah's demands: hostilities would cease if Shariah, or Islamic law, was adopted and the government released Sufi Muhammad, Fazlullah's father-in-law who was jailed in 2002 for having sent thousands of volunteers to Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Muhammad had been head of the banned pro-Taliban group Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammedi or Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law. After his arrest Fazlullah became the new chief. The group has re-emerged this year in Swat and Malakand, another impoverished conservative region near the Afghan border.

The seminary has yet to open for religious studies but often draws thousands of worshippers at Friday prayers, residents say. Sirajuddin claimed some 80,000 devotees had gathered for prayers Fazlullah led during the recent religious holiday of Eid ul-Fitr.

As well as marshaling armed militants and enforcing Islamic law, Fazlullah has used his FM station to urge schoolgirls to wear all-covering burqas and has forced several development organizations to close their offices, accusing them of spreading immorality for using female staff, residents say.

That has irked authorities, but Sirajuddin said tensions in Swat had risen in the wake of the Pakistani army raid on the pro-Taliban Red Mosque in Islamabad which had launched a freelance, Islamic anti-vice campaign similar to Fazlullah's own efforts to dispense Islamic justice. More than 100 people died in the July assault on the mosque and neighboring girls' seminary.

"The situation in the whole country, particularly here, has changed because of Lal Masjid," Sirajuddin said, referring to the Red Mosque. "This situation is the reaction to Lal Masjid."

After the 30-minute interview, the journalists left the riverside seminary, set against a glorious backdrop of mountains, peach and apple orchards and maize and rice fields.

On the road out, a militant in his early 20s, wearing a camouflage sleeveless jacket, black turban and carrying an AK-47 assault rifle stopped and challenged the AP reporter: "What are you doing here? We don't want spies here. You know what we do to spies."

Suddenly, about 60 or 70 militants appeared. Most were young men in their teens or 20s with long hair and beards with assault rifles. Some older men carried shot guns and single-bore rifles used for hunting. One man in his 50s made a show of cocking his pistol.

The reporter called Fazlullah's spokesman by cell phone, before handing his phone to the young militant.

"Let him go," Sirajuddin said, and the reporter was allowed to pass.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.