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Pakistan arrests Taliban's voice in Swat Valley, 4 other militant leaders

Muslim Khan is said to be the highest-ranking Swat Taliban leader arrested since Pakistan began earlier this year to retake the volatile region. The main leader, Maulana Fazlullah, remains at large.

September 12, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The voice of Taliban militants in the Swat Valley has been arrested along with four other Taliban leaders in the region they once controlled, Pakistani military officials said Friday.

Muslim Khan is said to be the highest-ranking Swat Taliban commander arrested since the government began its offensive in late April to retake the Swat Valley from the Islamist militant group. The Taliban spokesman and the other Taliban leaders were arrested Sept. 3 during a search operation in the suburbs of Mingora, said Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.

Abbas would not discuss specifically how or where the arrests took place.

The Swat Taliban's main leader, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, remains at large four months after Pakistani troops launched their offensive to flush the Taliban out of the Swat and adjoining Buner districts, which had fallen under militant control after Taliban leaders reneged on their agreement to lay down their arms in exchange for the imposition of Islamic law in the region.

Still, the arrests hand the Taliban in Swat one of its most significant setbacks as it tries to regroup. One of the major criticisms levied against the Pakistani military had been that, despite regaining control over Swat's major cities and towns, it had left the Taliban leadership largely intact.

More than 1.6 million Pakistanis have returned to their homes in Swat since the offensive concluded, but many remain fearful that Taliban leaders will eventually organize a new wave of attacks in Mingora, Swat's largest city, and other towns in the valley.

Khan, who for a time lived in the United States, acted as the primary spokesman for Fazlullah, conducting frequent interviews with local and international journalists and freely giving out his cellphone and home phone numbers. But, Abbas emphasized, "he was much more than a spokesman. He was one of the main leaders of the Swat Taliban, at the top of the hierarchy. So it's very significant."

Since the return of refugees to Swat, Taliban militants have carried out several additional attacks in the region, focusing much of their attention on local police. However, the heavy military presence that remains in Swat has largely kept militants in check.

The Taliban's leadership in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border has also been dealt severe setbacks. A U.S. drone missile strike Aug. 5 killed Pakistan's top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mahsud. His spokesman, Maulvi Omar, was captured by Pakistani troops in mid-August.

Mahsud has since been replaced by one of his deputies, Hakimullah Mahsud, and analysts have emphasized the importance of forging ahead with a military push to erode the Taliban's hold in the tribal areas before it can regroup. Pakistani military leaders say it may take several months to prepare a ground offensive to rout the Taliban there.

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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