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Pakistani villagers battle Taliban; 26 dead

Pakistani villagers battled Taliban militants in a northwestern valley after the Taliban tried to kidnap a Muslim holy man, 20 villagers and six militants have been killed, police said.

world Updated: Sep 06, 2008 13:00 IST

Pakistani villagers battled Taliban militants in a northwestern valley on Saturday after the Taliban tried to kidnap a Muslim holy man, and 20 villagers and six militants have been killed, police said.

The clash was a rare show of defiance by villagers in the northwest where Pakistani Taliban fighters have been extending their influence from strongholds on the Afghan border.

The fighting broke out on Friday between militants and residents of Matta district in the Swat Valley, about 140 km (85 miles) northwest of the capital, Islamabad.

"Villagers stood up against them and killed six militants when they tried to take Pir Samiullah hostage. Their defiance angered the militants who attacked and killed 20 people," said police officer Fazl-e-Subhan.

A pir is a Muslim holy man. It was not clear why the militants wanted to detain him.

The fighting continued on Saturday with residents taking positions on mountains to battle the militants, police said.

Many Pakistanis have a gun in their homes, often a Kalashnikov automatic rifle, especially in the northwest.

The Swat Valley was one of Pakistan's main tourist destinations until last year, when militants infiltrated from sanctuaries on the Afghan border to support a radical cleric trying to impose hardline Taliban rule.

Heavy fighting erupted last November when the military went on the offensive to clear the militants out. Fighting eased off but flared again in August after a peace pact collapsed.

Hundreds of people have been killed in the valley.

Villagers criticised government forces for not helping them.

"We sought their help but all they did was fire some artillery which wasn't enough and that's why we suffered so many casualties," resident Sallahuddin Khan told Reuters.

A military spokesman in Swat was not available for comment.

Pakistani forces have been battling militants elsewhere in the northwest in recent weeks, in particular in the Bajaur region on the Afghan border, to the west of Swat.

The fighting has displaced up to 300,000 people in the northwest and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday cholera had broken out among some of them.

"Cholera has started in certain areas ... It is a major concern," Pascal Cuttat, head of ICRC's delegation in Pakistan, told a news briefing in Geneva.

"The most immediate need remains access to clean water and sanitation. No food, health care or shelter is going to be of any good if people get water-borne diseases," he said.

Some displaced people began going home after the government said it would suspended military operations in the northwest for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began on Tuesday.

The government said its forces would retaliate if attacked and a Taliban spokesman rejected the ceasefire.