Pakistani forces clear militants from valley towns

MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistani forces have cleared militants from two towns in a northwestern valley, and the Islamists trying to impose Taliban-style rule there have fled, the military said on Thursday.

The Pakistani army launched an offensive last month against hundreds of militants who had infiltrated into the Swat valley from strongholds on the Afghan border in support of a radical cleric.

The valley, about five hours’ drive on mountain roads from Islamabad, had been a tourist destination until this year when well-armed militants appeared and began to enforce their rule.

They attacked security forces, closed girls’ schools and video shops and tried to destroy ancient Buddhist ruins, raising fresh fears about the spread of militancy as President Perez Musharraf remained preoccupied with political opposition to his rule.

Security forces had now regained control of the towns of Matta and Khawzakhela, the military said, and were also searching a religious school, or madrasa, that had been the headquarters of the radical cleric, Fazlullah.

“Today we’ve searched the so-called madrasa because it was not being used as a madrasa, it was being used for planning and recruitment for these militant activities,” said military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad.

Soldiers were also searching the houses of Fazlullah and his spokesman, Arshad said. “We found arms and ammunition in all three places … Those houses are being demolished on the demand of the locals,” he said. The houses were later blown up.

About 250 militants have been killed over the course of the offensive and scores captured. Twenty-five civilians and 15 soldiers have also been killed.

Thousands of villagers have left the valley since the fighting flared. Arshad said the militants and Fazlullah were believed to have fled into remote valleys to the west.

Musharraf cited rising militant violence when he declared a nationwide state of emergency on November 3. He said on Thursday that security forces were dealing with the problem in Swat.

“There are a few people who are creating trouble … but that should not be a big problem. We have sorted them out and we’ll keep sorting them out,” he told an audience of businessmen and students on a television talk show.

Arshad said security forces would clear militants out of the entire valley.

“Until the time people are cleared from the western areas, operations will continue,” he said.

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