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Pakistan Taliban says Swat chief alive, vows jihad

world Updated: Jul 23, 2009 15:54 IST

The Taliban on Thursday denied claims that Maulana Fazlullah, architect of a brutal uprising in Pakistan's Swat valley, was wounded and threatened to unleash renewed holy war.

Pakistan said on July 8 it had "credible" information that Fazlullah was hurt during a blistering offensive designed to crush Taliban militants who fought for two years to enforce Islamic law in the northwest Swat valley.

"Taliban chief Fazlullah is alive, healthy and has never been wounded," the spokesman, Muslim Khan, told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Neither the claim by the military nor the Taliban has been supported by any evidence or independent confirmation.

As the architect of an uprising that marked the only time that a district under Pakistani government control effectively slipped into hands of the Taliban, Fazlullah has a 50-million-rupee (615,000-dollar) price on his head.

He led thousands of supporters, a mixture of hardcore ideologues and disenfranchised young men, in a brutal campaign that beheaded opponents, burned scores of schools and fought against government troops since November 2007.

"All of the Taliban leadership in Swat are alive and are in hiding with a strategy. We will continue our jihad until the enforcement of Islamic sharia," the Taliban spokesman told AFP on Thursday.

"Army artillery and tanks cannot prevent us from achieving our objective," he added. Khan was the main mouthpiece for Fazlullah, but went to ground with the rest of the Taliban Swat leadership when the offensive began.

He is included in a list of 16 most-wanted Taliban commanders and the Pakistani government has slapped a 10-million-rupee price on his head.

Military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP he had not heard the statement from Muslim Khan and reserved making a direct response.

But he reiterated that the military received information from the area of an air strike that Fazlullah had been wounded in the raid.

Fazlullah is a son-in-law of elderly pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammad, who secured a government deal to put three million people in the northwest under sharia law in February -- an agreement that failed to stem the fighting.

Pakistan unleashed its summer offensive under US pressure after armed Taliban marched into the district of Buner in April, putting Fazlullah's fighters within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the national capital, Islamabad.

The Taliban spokesman accused Pakistan of "claiming" killings and injuries in order "to get more and more dollars," an allusion to Pakistan's alliance with the United States that has inflamed radical Islamist groups.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said earlier this month that the military had "eliminated" extremists and that the government had bussed back tens of thousands of 1.9 million civilians who were displaced by the fighting.

But deadly skirmishes have continued, raising fears that the Taliban escaped into the mountains, as after previous military offensives.

An army update Thursday said that two "terrorists" had been killed over the last 24 hours in Swat.

Pakistan says more than 1,800 militants and 166 security personnel have been killed since April, but the death tolls are impossible to verify independently.