Dawn : Pakistan forces attack cleric stronghold after suicide attack, militants kidnap 8

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pakistan forces attack cleric stronghold after suicide attack, militants kidnap 8

AP | October 26, 2007

Mingora (SWAT), Pakistan, -- Security forces backed by helicopters attacked militant cleric Maulana Fazlullah’s stronghold in scenic Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan on Friday, killing one of his supporters near the scene of Thursday’s deadly suicide attack, police and an aide to the cleric said.

Also Friday, militants ambushed a minibus carrying police and paramilitary forces on the outskirts of Swat, kidnapping three civilians and eight police and paramilitary soldiers.

The rebels later freed the civilians, but efforts were under way to rescue the captive security forces.

Separately, militants fired at a helicopter carrying a senior army officer on Friday in the same region.

They missed the target and the helicopter made safe landing, said another local police official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The fighting broke out in the village of Imam Dheri where the cleric has a sprawling seminary.

Sirajuddin, an aide of Fazlullah, said one of their fighters was killed and four were wounded in the raid by security forces using mortars, missiles and strafing by helicopters.

“We are defending ourselves. We have carried out retaliation,” Sirajuddin told the AP by telephone from Imam Dheri. “We have enough heavy weapons.”

Swat district police chief Arshad Majid said he had no information on casualties in the fighting.

Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said army helicopters joined the operation, and troops were sent to the region as reserves to help local authorities maintain law and order, if requested.

Militants in the village and security forces fought with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other weapons across the rushing Swat River, witnesses said.

Residents said they saw four helicopters hovering over the area and could hear loud explosions from heavy weapons fire.

One of the choppers was seen firing rockets near Fazlullah's house.

“The security forces attacked a building where Maulana Fazlullah had been appearing in recent days to urge his followers to target the Pakistan army, police and other security forces,” said Muhibullah, a local police official, in the nearby town of Mingora.

In an FM radio broadcast on Wednesday, Fazlullah reportedly announced he was shifting to neighbouring mountainous district, Kohistan.