Pakistan Arrests 5 Taliban Leaders in Swat Valley Raid

By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 12, 2009

KABUL, Sept. 11 -- Authorities in Pakistan announced Friday that they had arrested five Taliban leaders in the Swat Valley, a verdant region that has been at the epicenter of the country's on-again, off-again battle against the violent, homegrown fundamentalist movement for two years.

Officials said they had seized Muslim Khan, 54, a spokesman for the group, and four other senior commanders in a raid in the former tourist haven. The army has been trying to clear Swat of Taliban remnants ever since it declared victory in a 12-week campaign against the Islamist fighters in the spring, an operation that sent nearly a million residents fleeing for their lives.

Analysts and officials in Pakistan described the arrests as a second milestone in the ongoing campaign against violent Islamist groups who use the northwest tribal area bordering Afghanistan as a sanctuary. In August, a U.S.-guided airstrike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban leader in the rugged region.

The arrests were "a significant development and a major breakthrough in the country's fight to eradicate the menace of terror, not only in the context of Swat," said Talat Masood, a retired army general who is now an analyst in Islamabad. "It shows that the intelligence is getting better, while the Taliban leadership seems to be on the run."

A Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the fugitive extremists had been arrested Wednesday. They were thought to be dead until the authorities suddenly announced their arrests Friday, the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States. "I think it was a good move to make on the day which falls on 9/11," the official said.

Pakistani authorities, who have been under increasing Western pressure to crack down on violent Islamist groups, have frequently carried out high-profile arrests or military operations at strategic moments, such as during visits from U.S. or British leaders.

Taliban officials in Swat confirmed to Pakistani journalists by telephone Friday that Khan and four senior militant commanders had been detained, but they said the group had been engaged in peace talks with Pakistani officials for the past week and had been "trapped" by the army. Pakistani officials denied that and said the men were arrested "after a successful operation" in Mingora, the main town in Swat.

Khan and another arrested man, identified as Mahmud Khan, had bounties of more than $100,000 on their heads. The others were identified as Maulana Sartaj Ali, Abdur Rehman and Fazle Ghaffar.

The Swat Valley has been at the center of an intensifying struggle between Pakistani authorities and Islamist groups that seek to impose their own religious law. That struggle has see-sawed inconclusively between military assaults and peace agreements over five years.

After a series of military operations failed to dislodge the Taliban from Swat last year, Pakistani officials agreed in February to an unprecedented peace deal that would allow the militants to institute autonomous Islamic law there.

Proponents had hoped this would contain the Taliban, but critics had feared it would give the fundamentalists a launching pad to reach deeper into Pakistan's heartland -- as well as to support Afghan Taliban insurgents fighting U.S., NATO and Afghan forces across the border.

The deal collapsed when the Taliban refused to disarm, so the army sent thousands of troops in April to clear the insurgents from Swat. In the resulting mayhem, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.

Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company