ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistani soldiers arrested the spokesman for the Taliban in the Swat Valley and four other commanders, the military announced Friday, striking its first major blow against the leadership of the insurgency in the one-time tourist resort.
The army did not say when the men were arrested but described their detention as the result of a “successful operation” in Swat. A local newspaper quoted a militant as saying some of the men were engaged in secret peace talks with the army when they were detained, but the interior minister denied that.
The announcement of the arrests, coming on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., will likely please American officials who have been encouraged by recent Pakistani military gains against the Taliban.
The army launched an offensive in the scenic valley in May after the Taliban seized control of the region following a two-year reign of terror. The area lies close to Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda and Taliban have long held sway.
The military claims to have killed more than 1,800 insurgents in operations praised by the West, which had been concerned nuclear-armed Pakistan lacked the will to take on militants also blamed for attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. But the failure to capture or kill Swat militant leaders had led to fears the insurgents could stage a comeback.
An army statement said Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan and commanders Mahmood Khan, Fazle Ghaffar, Abdul Rehman and Sartaj Ali had been arrested. The first two had bounties of 10 million rupees ($121,000) on their head, the army said.
Muslim Khan, who spent several years in the United States, frequently called media outlets to claim responsibility for attacks. In an interview with The Associated Press in April, he said that Osama bin Laden was welcome to stay in the valley. Since the offensive, he has rarely been quoted by the media.
The News, a major English-language daily, reported that some of the arrested men were negotiating with the military. It quoted a militant named Salman as saying the Swat Taliban had lost telephone contact with five men in a delegation that was negotiating in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas declined to comment when asked about the report.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik insisted the detainees were held during a “law enforcement action,” not lured by peace talks.
“This has been our policy from day one when we started the operation that there will be no negotiations with the terrorists,” Malik said. “They have no other option. Either they get killed or get arrested.”
Past Pakistani attempts to strike peace deals with militant groups have usually collapsed, spurring Western criticism that the pacts give the insurgents time to re-arm and regroup. The latest Swat offensive began after the militants refused to disarm even after a peace deal agreed to their demands to impose Islamic law in the valley.
The Taliban’s top commander in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, is still on the run, though in July the army claimed to have wounded him in an airstrike. There were also unconfirmed reports in June that another senior commander, Shah Doran, had been killed.
The Swat offensive has somewhat reassured the West that Pakistan is committed to fighting militancy that remains rampant in parts of its northwest.
Last month, the head of Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Meshsud, was killed in a CIA missile strike close to the Afghan border. That group’s spokesman was arrested several weeks later.