IMAMDEHRI, Pakistan (AFP) – Troops backed by gunship helicopters ringed a militant cleric’s hideout in northwest Pakistan on Friday, clashing with his supporters a day after a deadly bombing, officials said.
Heavy fighting broke out in the scenic Swat valley in North West Frontier Province, the base of radical religious leader Maulana Fazlullah who has been driving a fierce campaign to introduce pro-Taliban laws.
A blast tore through a security forces vehicle in Swat on Thursday, killing about 30 people, in an apparent reaction to the arrival of more than 2,000 troops in the area earlier this week.
“An intense exchange of fire has been reported between security forces and supporters of Maulana Fazlullah. They surrounded his hideout and met fierce resistance,” said Habibullah Khan, a local police officer.
An AFP correspondent at the scene said troops were firing heavy weapons from hilltops around the cleric’s headquarters in the village of Imamdehri.
“The clash erupted after militants fired at paramilitary forces setting up checkposts, the forces retaliated and asked for helicopter cover,” chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad told AFP.
“We provided them with surveillance and gunship helicopters to give cover to fighting troops. I have no details on casualties.”
Ambulances were on standby in the area, witnesses said.
Violence first erupted in Swat in July, when militants mounted revenge attacks on the army after government troops stormed the Al-Qaeda-linked Red Mosque in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The Swat valley was once one of Pakistan’s premier tourist spots, attracting a large number of foreign guests drawn by its Buddhist heritage and archaeological sites.
But the area in the conservative province bordering Afghanistan has in the past two years become a stronghold of Fazlullah’s banned group, Tahreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM).
Security officials say the group is linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime.
The group was outlawed by President Pervez Musharraf in 2002 after it sent more than 10,000 volunteers to fight in Afghanistan against US forces who led an invasion to oust the country’s hardline Taliban regime.
Fazlullah is also known as “Mullah Radio” for his fiery radio speeches in which he calls for the imposition of Islamic Sharia law and for attacks on security forces.
The worsening situation in Swat is seen by analysts here as evidence of the growing “Talibanisation” of previously peaceful areas that border Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt along the Afghan frontier.
Pakistan has around 90,000 troops in the tribal belt combating Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants who fled Afghanistan in 2001, as well as their radical Pakistani supporters.
More than 250 people, including about 50 troops, were killed in battles in the tribal region of North Waziristan earlier this month.
The violence also adds to the political turmoil in Pakistan, following a double suicide attack on returning former premier Benazir Bhutto in Karachi on October 18 that killed nearly 140 people.