Pakistani nationalist hero who defied the Taliban dies aged 89

  • AFP, Peshawar, Pakistan
  • Updated: Nov 02, 2015 19:58 IST
An undated photograph shows prominent Pakistani Pashtun leader Afzal Khan Lala (R) posing for a photograph with a friend in Swat Valley. (AFP Photo)

A Pakistani nationalist hero who defied the Taliban in Swat Valley and survived more than 10 assassination attempts by the insurgents has died peacefully of liver disease at the age of 89, his family said Monday.

Prominent Pashtun leader Afzal Khan Lala was feted nationwide after his stand in Swat, where he vowed he would stay despite multiple attacks on his home by the Taliban and a bloody military offensive that displaced millions.

He was buried late Sunday in the scenic valley after he passed away in a military hospital in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, his nephew told AFP.

In 2007 the valley -- previously a popular international tourist destination, which lies in the shadow of the Hindu Kush in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- fell under the control of the Pakistani Taliban.

Radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah mounted a violent campaign in which his followers beheaded opponents, burnt schools and fought to enforce Islamic sharia law.

Lala refused to leave his home, vowing “I would rather die than cede ground to the Taliban”.

He survived his first Taliban assassination attempt in 2008 when militants opened fire on his car, killing his two security guards.

Most of the further 10 attacks were on his home in Matta -- also Fazullah’s native village and the then-headquarters of the Taliban. The militants torched around 80 shops he owned and destroyed his fruit orchards.

He also stood firm during a bloody offensive by the Pakistan army which saw millions flee the valley.

Originally called Muhammad Afzal Khan, Lala graduated with a law degree in Karachi before going on to become a veteran politician of the Awami National Party.

He also wrote six books and headed a Pashtun Nationalist movement called PONM (Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement) in the 1990s.

He was imprisoned from 1975 to 1978 when the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned his party, but was freed by military dictator Zia ul-Haq.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his grief and lauded Lala’s services to democracy, local media said.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani also offered his condolences, saying in a statement that Lala was “a moderate, kind and thoughtful politician, he served and fought all his life for sovereignty and people’s rights... His death is a big loss”.

Lala was awarded Pakistan’s highest civilian award for bravery, the Hilal-i-Shujaat, in 2009. He is survived by his wife, three sons and three daughters.

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