Battle at TNSM's Stronghold in Swat

Battle at Pakistan Cleric’s Stronghold
By ISMAIL KHANNew York Times, October 26, 2007

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct. 26 — Pakistani security forces exchanged heavy gunfire with militants at the sprawling seminary of an increasingly powerful extremist cleric in the troubled North-West Frontier Province today, according to regional police officials.

The fighting was in the same region where a bomb attack on Thursday killed 17 members of a civil armed guard and 3 civilians.

The cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, is also known as Maulana Radio for his illegal radio broadcasts urging Taliban-style Islamic law. The provincial government deployed 2,500 troops to the area, known as Swat, two days ago, to join army forces trying to quell the rise of extremism the cleric has fostered. He is believed to have gone underground since the troops arrived.

Swat, once a peaceful tourist area, has been transformed in the past few months by a series of deadly bombings that have been aimed at civilians. The cleric is believed to have 4,500 armed followers.

The fighting today was in a subdistrict of northern Swat, called Kabal.

A deputy inspector general of police, Akhtar Ali Shah, said that the security forces responded when they were fired at. “Security forces attracted some fire and they retaliated,” he said in a telephone interview.

The fighting escalated as militants holding positions on hilltops around the riverside seminary fired at security forces holding positions on the other side of the river, he said.

The exchange of fire was intermittently punctuated by heavy explosions as gunship helicopters flew overhead. Local residents said that paramilitary soldiers were flown in by army helicopters to seize control of a militant training camp on a hilltop.

The fighting comes a day after a powerful bomb ripped through a truck carrying members of a civil armed guard, the Frontier Constabulary , near the town of Mingora, the killing 17 guard members and 3 civilians.

The truck was taking the guard members to a base when it was hit by a speeding car coming from the opposite direction, according to a security official. The truck veered off and fell on a rickshaw before bursting into flames.

The security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the blast set off a chain of explosions, apparently caused by ammunition inside the truck, damaging a nearby gas pump and several shops. Witnesses said many wounded soldiers were seen jumping from the overturned, burning truck. At least 25 people, including several civilians, were wounded.

Officials said that when the charred truck was removed with a crane, an engine and parts of a Suzuki car were also found there. They said the body parts of the bomber had yet to be found.

Since Mr. Fazlullah has gained a following in the province, militants have blown up at least 100 shops selling popular music and videos. According to one account, there have been more than 50 bomb explosions claiming dozens of lives since the central government began a deployment of troops into the region in July.

Badshah Gul Wazir, the home secretary for the province, vowed that the government would press ahead with its plan to restore its control in the area.

“The guys have to surrender,” he said, referring to the militants. “They have criminal cases registered against them. Whether they do so through negotiations or through force is up to them.”

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