Swat Taliban chief gives Pakistan army the slip and escapes across the border

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The Independent Online

The head of the Taliban in Pakistan's Swat Valley has claimed he has escaped from a dragnet set up by government forces and slipped into Afghanistan.

Speaking from an undisclosed location, Maulana Fazlullah, who government officials this summer claimed was injured and surrounded by troops, said his fighters would soon launch raids against the Pakistani military in the valley. He also made an ominous threat to a senior provincial minister.

"I have reached Afghanistan safely," he told BBC Urdu. "We are soon going to launch fully fledged punitive raids against the army in Swat."

The notorious cleric, known for his fiery exhortations delivered by FM radio, has been on the run since government forces ousted Taliban fighters from the valley, less than 100 miles from Islamabad, earlier this year. There have been several claims that he was seriously wounded and that troops were close to capturing him. Some even claimed he had been arrested.

But the man who sought to enforce hardline Islamic law in the valley and oversaw a brutal reign of violence and intimidation against both police and civilians, vowed that his fighters were poised to return.

"The authorities should beware, especially Mian Iftikhar Hussain, [the information minister in the North West Frontier Province government] whose fate will be like that of Najibullah," he said, in a reference to the former Afghan president who was hanged in 1996 when the Taliban seized control of Kabul.

In February of this year, the government in Islamabad brokered a deal with the Taliban that saw the introduction of official sharia courts in the Swat Valley. But the militants failed to meet their end of the bargain and lay down their weapons, instead extending their influence into neighbouring areas such as Buner. Amid mounting domestic and international concern, the military launched an operation to force out the militants in April. The army has since taken control of the largest town, Mingora, and the valley's other main centres, driving out most of the militants.

If confirmed, news of the survival of the cleric, who has a reward of 50m Pakistani rupees (£375,000) on his head, will boost the militants' morale.

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