Senior Taliban spokesman captured in Pakistan

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The Independent Online

The Pakistan army has captured the spokesman for the Taliban in the northwest Swat Valley and four other commanders, marking the most high-profile detentions since a military offensive was launched in the former holiday destination.

The gravel-voiced Muslim Khan, who notoriously issued chilling justifications for the Taliban’s brutality, and senior commander Mehmood Khan were arrested as part of a “successful operation” in the Swat Valley, the army said. Three other junior commanders and up to 20 other fighters were also seized yesterday.

Circumstances of the arrests remain murky. Just hours before the army’s statement, a local newspaper had reported that the government had lured the militants to Islamabad eight days earlier for “peace talks”. But the army and the government denied the claims.

The arrests represent a major boost for the army. After Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, who remains at large, Mr Khan was the most prominent militant in the area. Military officials often described him in dark tones as “fearsome” and “hardcore” fighter. Coming on the eight anniversary of 9/11, the news is likely to play well in Washington.

It will also dampen fears that the army was not serious in taking on the Swat Taliban’s senior commanders. Earlier military offensives faltered after an unharmed leadership was able to regroup and consolidate their control.

Since launching the military offensive in May, the army claims to have killed over 1,800 Taliban fighters and secured urban areas as nearly half of the 2 million displaced have returned.

But sporadic clashes continue west of the Swat river and many fighters are still hunkered down in the valey. A lull in suicide attacks was broken last month when over 15 community police recruits were killed in Mingora, where stability had slowly begun to return. In rural areas, tightly enforced curfews are in operation as anxious troops patrol nearby roads.

The local population has, however, banded together to form tribal militias, or lashkars, to protect their neighbourhoods in the event of a Taliban comeback. Armed with ageing rifles, they have killed Taliban fighters discovered in hiding and torched the homes of known collaborators.

Mr Khan became one of the voices most feared by Pakistanis. In regular media appearances, he claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks, denounced women’s education as “vulgarity” and vowed that the Taliban would impose their brutal brand of justice across the world.

Sporting a silvery-white beard and a silk black turban, the wizened jihadist once led a very different life in the US as labourer. The broken English he picked up there served as an asset when fielding calls from foreign journalists over a crackly mobile phone connection.