AP : Pakistani Militants Behead 4 Officers

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pakistani Militants Behead 4 Officers

By RIAZ KHAN | AP | October 26, 2007

SWAT, Pakistan (AP) — Islamic militants reportedly captured and beheaded three militiamen and a police officer Friday while government troops and helicopter gunships attacked the nearby stronghold of a radical cleric in northwestern Pakistan.

The fighting came a day after a suicide bombing killed 20 people in another part of Swat district in the intensifying conflict between the U.S.-allied government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and pro-Taliban forces in the volatile tribal region along the Afghan border.

After killing the four security officers, the militants displayed the severed heads in Imam Dheri village near Swat, said Badshah Gul Wazir, home secretary for the volatile North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.

Wazir would not confirm reports that the four slain men were among eight officers captured. "I know they were four, and they have been beheaded," he said at a news conference in the city of Peshawar, the provincial capital about 30 miles from Swat.

A few hours earlier, militiamen of the regional Frontier Constabulary, supported by army helicopters, attacked the redoubt of cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who runs a sprawling seminary in Imam Dheri and leads a band of armed militants.

Hundreds of villagers fled as the two sides battled across the rushing Swat River, firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other weapons. Police said one militant was known dead and two civilians were killed by stray bullets near the river.

"I never saw this type of violence in my life," said Abdul Hamid, a 70-year-old shop owner in Swat, who sobbed as he watched thick smoke rising from trees set afire on a nearby mountain where fighting also broke out.

"Swat was one of the safest places on Pakistan, and now it has become Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don't know what will happen in future," Hamid said.

An aide of Fazlullah confirmed one of the cleric's fighters was killed and said four others were wounded in the fighting, which subsided after the Muslim call to prayer at sunset.

"God willing, casualties on their side (the security forces) will be more," the aide, Sirajuddin, told The Associated Press by telephone from Imam Dheri. He uses only one name.

He vowed Fazlullah's supporters would fight to the death. "We have enough heavy weapons."

Villagers said four helicopter gunships were hovering over the area and reported loud explosions from heavy weapons fire throughout the day. Mohammed Zubair, 35, said he saw one of the aircraft fire rockets near Fazlullah's house.

The Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, confirmed army helicopters joined in the attack and said army troops were standing by in case they were needed.

Pakistan deployed 2,500 militiamen of the regional border guard force to Swat this week to confront Fazlullah, who leads a banned pro-Taliban group that sent thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion six years ago.

The group re-emerged this year in Swat and in Malakand, another impoverished, conservative region next to the Afghan border.

As well as marshaling a band of armed militants, Fazlullah has used an FM radio station to lecture against girls' education and denounce a recent polio vaccination drive as a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children.

In a broadcast Wednesday, Fazlullah announced he was shifting to a neighboring district, Kohistan, a resident reported. Sirajuddin, the aide, said Friday that Fazlullah had abandoned his house, but by evening said the cleric had returned to Swat.

The battle followed a suicide car bombing Thursday that hit a truck carrying Frontier Constabulary troops through a crowded area of Mingora, the main town in Swat district. The attack killed 19 soldiers and a civilian and wounded 35 people.

Fazlullah's spokesman denied the cleric was involved in the bombing, saying he wanted peace in the region and only wanted to impose Islamic law.

The bombing underlined the worsening security situation in Pakistan, particularly near the border with Afghanistan where militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida increasingly hold sway in a challenge to Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorist groups.

The blast came a week after a suicide bombing aimed at former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto killed 143 people in the southern city of Karachi. She blamed Islamic militants but also accused elements in Pakistan's security services of complicity — claims rejected by the government.

Bhutto, who escaped without injury, planned to travel to her hometown of Larkana on Saturday, making her first trip outside Karachi since she returned last week to lead her party in parliamentary elections planned for January. She had spent eight years in self-imposed exile.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad contributed to this report.