Pakistani troops backed by tanks and armoured vehicles on Thursday launched a major operation against the headquarters of pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlullah in the restive northwestern Swat valley.
The operation against Imamdheri, the town where Fazlullah's seminary is located, came after a sustained offensive over the past three weeks against the cleric's armed followers that has left over 230 rebels dead. It was launched after the security forces tightened their grip on key towns and villages in Swat over the past few days.
A large number of troops, backed by tanks and artillery, took up positions around Imamdheri this morning after setting up several check posts to check the movement of rebels.
Security forces were also deployed at nearby strategic heights like Usmani Top and Najia Top, Dawn News channel reported.
Curfew was suddenly clamped over the entire area this morning to check the movement of militants and to prevent civilian casualties. All roads around Imamdheri were deserted and only vehicles of the security forces were seen moving in the area.
Over the past few days, security forces have regained control of key towns like Matta, Khawalkhela and Charbagh after arresting nearly 90 militants, including several of Fazlullah's deputies.
The cleric, known as "Mullah Radio" for his sermons advocating jehad broadcast from an illegal FM station, is in hiding. Fazlullah and his men had been running a parallel government in nearly 60 villages in Swat valley, which till recently had been a popular tourist destination with both Pakistanis and foreigners.
Backed by the troops, the police and civil administration have moved back into the area, returning to police stations, hospitals and tehsil offices.
Security forces have also been searching the area around Khwazakhela for militants and mines and booby traps. Four suspected militants were apprehended by police yesterday.
The federal government had rushed thousands of paramilitary forces into Swat in late October. An assault by them on Fazlullah's sprawling seminary in Imamdheri sparked fierce fighting between the security forces and the rebels.
However, the paramilitary troops suffered numerous reverses and hundreds of them surrendered without even fighting. In many towns, police and paramilitary forces, which draw most of their recruits from the local population, refused to fight against the militants.
President Pervez Musharraf finally ordered the army, which was deployed in Swat in July, to take the lead role in the operations against the militants. The federal government yesterday announced that a cantonment will be established in Matta town to ensure peace and stability in the region.