Mon Sep 14, 2009 9:20am EDT
By Kamran Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani security forces intensified a hunt on Monday for the Pakistani Taliban leader in the Swat valley, military officials said, and a U.S. drone killed four militants in a missile strike near the Afghan border.
Pakistani forces have made gains against the militants recently, months after Taliban advances and bomb attacks raised fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s future and contributed to a slide in investor confidence.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Sunday that the top Taliban leader in the Swat valley, about 120 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, was surrounded. The back of the Taliban insurgency, he said, had been broken.
The military’s chief spokesman was more cautious, saying efforts were being made to capture the Swat Taliban chief, a self-styled cleric called Fazlullah, but media reports of his imminent capture were speculation.
Military officials in the former tourist valley said troops were searching in different places and clashes had erupted.
“Our teams are carrying out search operations, particularly for him in two or three areas. For sure, he can’t flee from Swat,” said a senior military official who declined to be identified, referring to Fazlullah.
“We’d like to capture him today,” the official said, giving no indication when he might be caught. “We don’t want to waste time with such operations, but you can’t give a timeframe.”
Security forces killed 16 militants, at least two of them senior Taliban members, in clashes during searches while one soldier was killed, the military said.
At the same time, 172 militants surrendered at two locations in the valley, a military spokesman said.
“The realization that the army is here and getting control is growing and now they’re contacting us,” said the spokesman, Major Mushtaq Khan. “They have no choice – either they get killed or surrender.”
The army says it has killed more than 2,000 fighters in an offensive launched in the Swat valley in April. There has been no independent verification of that estimate.
The Pakistani Taliban under the overall command of Baitullah Mehsud was held responsible for a wave of attacks across the country from 2007, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December that year.
Mehsud died in a missile attack last month by a U.S. drone aircraft in his South Waziristan stronghold on the Afghan border.
U.S. and Pakistani officials said Mehsud’s death left the militants in disarray and riven by rivalry, but analysts say it is too early to say if their setbacks are a permanent blow or if they might regroup and strike back. [ID:nSP61388] Early on Monday, a U.S. drone fired a missile at a Taliban vehicle near the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, on the Afghan border. A Pakistani intelligence agent said the dead were apparently foreign, but no leaders were believed among them.
Facing surging violence in Afghanistan, the United States stepped up its missile strikes in Pakistan last year, killing hundreds of militants.
Pakistan officially objects to the U.S. strikes as a violation of its sovereignty that causes civilian casualties.
But U.S. officials say the strikes are carried out under an agreement with Pakistan that allows its leaders to decry them in public.
The Pakistani militants are allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan, where violence is at its most intense since the overthrow of their government in 2001.