Soldiers move in on militant cleric

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Pakistani troops and helicopter gunships attacked the village stronghold of a militant cleric yesterday, a day after a deadly suicide bombing, while militants retaliated by beheading four security personnel in an intensifying conflict in the northwest.

Militants kidnapped and beheaded three paramilitary soldiers and a police officer, and displayed their severed heads in a village near the resort town of Swat, said Badshah Gul Wazir, the Home Secretary of the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.

"I know they were four, and they have been beheaded," he told a news conference in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

Media reports had said that militants had abducted a total of eight security officials, but Wazir would not confirm the total number of kidnapped personnel.

Wazir's comments came hours after the two sides traded fire across the rushing Swat River, using rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other weapons, after security forces attacked the redoubt of the cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who runs a sprawling seminary in the village of Imam Dheri.

Two civilians were killed when stray bullets hit them near the river, while one of the militants also died in the gunbattle, said Mohammed Khan, a police official in Swat.

Pakistan deployed 2,500 paramilitary troops to Swat this week to tackle the cleric, who leads a banned pro-Taliban group that sent thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan during the US-led invasion in 2001. The group has re-emerged this year in Swat and Malakand, another impoverished, conservative region next to the Afghan border.

As well as marshaling a band of armed militants, Fazlullah has used an FM radio station to campaign against girls' education and denounce a recent polio vaccination drive as a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children.

"I never saw this type of violence in my life," said Abdul Hamid, 70, a shop-owner in Swat, who sobbed as he watched thick smoke rising from a nearby mountain where fighting had also broken out. A forest was burning after rocket fire sparked a blaze.

"Swat was one of the safest places on Pakistan, and now it has become Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don't know what will happen in future," he said.

An aide of Fazlullah said one of their fighters was killed and four were wounded in Friday's clashes, which subsided after the Muslim call to prayer at sunset. Police said they had no details on casualties.

"God willing, casualties on their side (security forces) will be more," Fazlullah's aide, Sirajuddin, told The Associated Press by telephone from Imam Dheri. He uses only one name.

"We are sitting in our homes and mosque ... we are defending ourselves. We have carried out retaliation," he said, vowing that Fazlullah's supporters would fight until death. "We have enough heavy weapons."

Residents said they saw four helicopters hovering over the area and reported loud explosions from heavy weapons fire throughout the day. Mohammed Zubair, 35, said he saw one of the choppers firing rockets near Fazlullah's house.

Pakistan army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad confirmed that army helicopters joined the operation and that ground forces were being kept in reserve in case they were needed.

In an FM radio broadcast on Wednesday, Fazlullah announced he was shifting to a neighboring mountainous district, Kohistan, said a resident who heard the broadcast. On Friday, Sirajuddin initially said the cleric had abandoned his house, but by evening reported that he had returned to Swat.

Near the scene of Friday's clashes, militants fired at a helicopter carrying a senior army officer. They missed the target and the helicopter made a safe landing, said a local police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

The army declined to comment.