ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani security forces have arrested the spokesman for the Taliban in the Swat valley, the military said, the first major arrest in the region since the army went on the offensive there more than four months ago.
The arrest of the spokesman, Muslim Khan, is the latest blow for the Pakistani Taliban whose leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in the South Waziristan region last month.
Taliban advances early this year and a string of attacks in cities raised fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan’s future and alarmed ally the United States, which even suggested the civilian government was “abdicating” to the militants.
But the Swat offensive, launched in late April, and attacks on the Taliban in their Afghan border strongholds including South Waziristan have done much to reassure Washington of Muslim Pakistan’s commitment to the fight against Islamist militancy.
Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said Khan and four other Taliban leaders from Swat were arrested there “in a successful operation.” He gave no details.
Confirming Khan’s arrest, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said militants had no option but surrender.
“They will either be killed or arrested,” Malik told reporters in the capital, Islamabad.
The military officials say more than 2,000 insurgents and more than 300 soldiers have been killed in the Swat offensive. There has been no independent verification of militant casualties.
Security forces have cleared much of the former tourist valley but there are still pockets of resistance.
But despite their success, the military had failed to kill or capture any top Taliban leaders from Swat until Khan’s arrest.
A middle-aged man with long grey hair flowing from under a turban and a full grey beard, Khan was the public face of the Taliban in Swat.
The top Taliban leader in Swat, a self-styled cleric called Fazlullah, avoided the television cameras and telephone interviews. The army said in July that Fazlullah was believed to have been wounded but Khan had denied it.
While the Taliban’s Swat bastion has been smashed, the army has also carried out attacks against militants in the Khyber region, where militants have been attacking trucks carrying supplies to Western forces across the border in Afghanistan.
The army says nearly 130 militants have been killed in the fighting in Khyber, most of them in the Bara district.
Khyber’s top government administrator, Tariq Hayat, said on Friday Bara had been almost cleared of militants.
But he also said nearly 600 policemen recruited from ethnic Pashtun tribes in the region had quit after an Islamist commander, Mangal Bagh, had warned them over his illegal FM radio to give up their jobs.
Twenty-two Pakistani border guards were killed last month in a suicide bomb attack at the main border crossing into Afghanistan, at the top of the Khyber Pass.
The army has also sealed off the main Taliban force in South Waziristan, the most remote of Pakistan’s seven Pashtun tribal regions along the Afghan border.
Last month, U.S. drone aircraft launched a missile attack in South Waziristan that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the overall leader of an alliance of Pakistani Taliban factions.
The Taliban have named a new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, who has sworn revenge, although authorities believe that the killing of Baitullah has led to a rift between rival factions.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Tait