Radical cleric Sufi Muhammad’s deputy killed in rescue bid (Lead)

June 6th, 2009 - 8:42 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Islamabad, June 6 (IANS) The Pakistani military seemed to be speaking in twin voices Saturday on radical cleric Sufi Muhammad, whose deputy was killed in a blotched rescue attempt by the Taliban in the country’s restive northwest, saying he was not in their custody.
Maulana Muhammad Alam, the deputy of Taliban-backed fundamentalist group Tehreek-e-Nifaz Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM), and his spokesman Ameer Izzat Khan were killed in crossfire with militants, the army said.

The militants in a bid to free the duo, had attacked a military convoy transporting them to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) capital Peshawar, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said.

A non-commissioned officer of the Pakistan Army was killed and five other soldiers were injured in the gun battle that erupted following the militant attack, the military said.

Alam and Amir were among the five men who had been arrested from the NWFP’s Lower Dir district Thursday, an army officer in the area had been quoted as saying.

Initial reports had said Sufi Muhammad was among those who had been arrested but the army flatly denied this Satur”ay.

“He is not in our custody,” ISPR chief Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said at a briefing here.

The whereabouts of the cleric could not be independently confirmed.

Sufi Muhammad had in February brokered a controversial peace deal with the NWFP government under which the Taliban were to lay down their arms in return for the imposition of Sharia laws in Swat and six other districts of the province that are collectively known as the Malakand division.

The Taliban, however, reneged on the peace deal and instead moved south from their Swat headquarters and occupied Buner, which is just 100 km Islamabad.

This has prompted the security forces to go into action against the Taliban April 26. The operations had begun in Lower Dir, Sufi Mohammad’s home district, and later spread to Buner and Swat.

The military says at least 1,305 Taliban have so far been killed in the operations and 120 captured. The security forces have suffered 105 casualties, with an equal number injured.

The operations have have triggered a massive civilian exodus, with some three million people fleeing the fighting in the three districts.

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