NYT : Fighting Intensifies Around Stronghold of Pakistani Cleric

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fighting Intensifies Around Stronghold of Pakistani Cleric

By ISMAIL KHAN | October 27, 2007

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct. 26 — Pakistani security forces exchanged heavy gunfire with militants at the sprawling seminary of a powerful cleric in the troubled North-West Frontier Province on Friday, a day after a suicide bomber killed 20 people, most of them border guards, in the same area.

Armed militants also beheaded four men thought to be police officers or members of local security forces in a village 10 miles west of Mingora, a resident said by telephone.

The home secretary of the province, Badshah Gul Wazir, acknowledged at a news briefing late Friday that three men of the armed civil guard known as the Frontier Constabulary and one policeman, who had been kidnapped by militants from a nearby district earlier in the day, had “reportedly” been killed.

The sharp rise in violence in the area, Swat Valley, which is relatively isolated from the lawless tribal areas on the Afghan border, demonstrates the growing strength of Islamists.

Leading the wave of militancy is the cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, who is also known as Maulana Radio for his illegal broadcasts calling for Taliban-like Islamic law, and who is thought to have some 4,500 followers.

He is the son-in-law of Sufi Muhammad, the founder of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, the Movement for the Implementation of Muhammad’s Law, who has been in prison since 2001 after sending Pakistanis into Afghanistan to support the Taliban in fighting American forces.

In July the government sent a division of troops into the valley to try to contain the violence, but they have met with frequent attacks. The provincial government deployed 2,500 more border guards to the area on Wednesday. Retaliation was swift: the suicide attack on Thursday.

Maulana Fazlullah’s whereabouts are not known.

The fighting on Friday centered around Imam Dheri Village, the headquarters of Maulana Fazlullah in Kabal district. Security forces and militants were holding positions on the opposite sides of the River Swat and exchanged heavy gunfire, punctuated by explosions. Security forces have occupied hilltop positions but avoided shelling the seminary directly, they said.

The home secretary, Mr. Gul Wazir, said that the government had not moved against the seminary but that a government unit had come under fire when moving in the area. Two civilians were killed in cross-fire, he said.

A resident of Shakkardarra described the execution of the four security officers: Masked men armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles brought the four men to their village around 5 p.m., fired a few shots into the air and then beheaded them.

The four men, said to be in their mid-20s, all had their hands tied behind them, the resident said.

The resident quoted one of the militants as declaring shortly before the beheadings: “Let this serve as a warning to all those who spy for the government or extend help. The sons of Bush will meet similar fate.”

People in Shakkardarra said that militants, mostly from a banned outfit called the Jaish-i-Muhammad, or Army of Muhammad, who had set up checkpoints on the main road and occupied hilltop positions, had seized the four men during a road check.

No group has claimed responsibility for the killing, but Maulana Naddar, a cleric said to be deputy to Maulana Fazlullah, said in a radio broadcast that the men had been killed to avenge the death of three militants killed earlier Friday.

As evening came, a tense calm returned to the area and the provincial cabinet met in Peshawar to discuss the situation.

A senior government official said the government would like to engage local elders and influential residents to calm the situation and sort out the issue with Maulana Fazlullah through negotiations.

The caretaker chief minister of the province, Shamsul Mulk, said the government would pursue a peaceful resolution, but would not shy away from using force to establish its authority.

Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.