PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — Pakistani troops Wednesday seized the base of a radical cleric in northwestern Swat valley where nearly two weeks of clashes have killed around 250 militants, officials said.
Swat, a top scenic tourist spot, had been partially overrun since July by followers of Maulana Fazlullah, an Islamic leader nicknamed "Mullah Radio" because he used a private FM station to call for holy war.
"Security forces entered the town of Imam Dheri which was the main base of Maulana Fazlullah," provincial government spokesman Amjad Iqbal told AFP.
The whereabouts of Fazlullah remain unknown. "He has gone underground," the official said.
The cleric had a huge complex under his control in Imam Dheri including a mosque and a madrassa, or Islamic seminary.
Prior to the recent clashes, some 200 armed followers used to guard the complex spread over an area of around two square kilometres (more than a mile).
The base, some eight kilometres from the valley's main town of Mingora, is located in the troubled Kabal district, where most towns have fallen to the government in the past two days.
Security sources in the area said the cleric's close aides have also fled, including his spokesman, Maulana Sirajuddin. They quoted residents as saying they were seen heading for the mountains.
President Pervez Musharraf, who cited the growing militancy as one of the reasons for declaring emergency rule on November 3, ordered the army to purge Swat of rebels after they had made sweeping gains since July.
Iqbal said security forces were in "complete control" of a large stretch of Kabal district after shelling suspected insurgent locations with artillery and mortar fire.
As the militants fled, people in a number of towns destroyed the fortified bunkers they left behind, Iqbal said, adding that authorities would Thursday extend a break in the curfew to allow residents time to demolish the remaining positions.
He said foreign militants were fighting alongside the Fazlullah loyalists. "The security forces recovered six bodies from Najia Top, they included two foreigners," Iqbal added, referring to the highest peak in Kabal district.
The army said one of the dead fighters was an Uzbek.
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