Reinforcing the belief that Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah is still alive, the Pakistani government on Friday raised the bounty on his head tenfold to a staggering Rs 50 million ($617,000).
Making the announcement in Karachi, Interior Minister Rehman Malik held Fazlullah directly responsible for a mass exodus that has seen some 2.9 million civilians fleeing the military's operations in Swat and two other districts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), The News said.
Malik also hoped the Swat operation would conclude in four to five weeks, pointing out that once a war starts, there could be no guessing as to when it would conclude.
NWFP Interior Minister Iftikhar Hussain had created considerable confusion on Thursday by declaring that Fazlullah had been killed in the military operations and simultaneously announcing a bounty of Rs 4 million ($50,000) on his head.
On Friday, the Pakistani military denied reports that Fazlullah had been killed in the NWFP operations.
"High sources in the security forces have denied reports that Maulana Fazlullah had been killed in the ongoing military operations," Geo TV reported.
“The security high-ups said that all the militant commanders including Maulana Fazlullah would be either killed or arrested,” the channel added.
It was Fazlullah's reneging on a controversial peace deal with the NWFP government that had prompted the security forces to go into action on April 26 after his fighters moved south from their Swat headquarters to occupy Buner, which is just 100 km from Islamabad.
The operations had begun in Lower Dir, the home district of Taliban-backed radical cleric Sufi Mohammad who had brokered the peace accord and who is Fazlullah's father-in-law, and had later spread to Buner and Swat districts.
Under the peace accord, the Taliban were to lay down their arms in return for the imposition of Sharia laws in Swat, Buner, Lower Dir and four other districts of the NWFP that are collectively known as the Malakand division.
With the operations entering their 35th day on Friday, the military estimates that close to 1,200 Taliban have so far been killed but there is no independent conformation of this as the battle zone is closed to the media. This apart, no visuals - still or TV - have emerged from the area of operations.
The security forces have lost some 70 personnel. The military operations have triggered the biggest and fastest civilian exodus in recent times.
The social welfare department of the NWFP has registered some 1.4 million refugees at its specially established camps but the UN estimates the number could be as high as 2.9 million as many of them could be staying with relatives and friends.
The UN estimates that close to $543 million would be required for the relief and rehabilitation of the refugees.