Swat Taliban chief reported injured

ISLAMABAD: Maulana Fazlullah, the commander of the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest Swat valley, has been reported injured during an offensive against the insurgents, the army spokesman said Wednesday.

The army had "credible" information that Fazlullah was hit, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a press conference in Islamabad, giving no further details about the hardline cleric's condition.

"In one of the strikes, Fazlullah has been injured," he said, adding to AFP that the air strike wounding the commander hit two days ago in Swat.

Radical cleric Fazlullah is the architect of a nearly two-year Taliban uprising to enforce sharia law in the Swat valley, where the military have been engaged in a two-month battle to dislodge the Islamist fighters.

Pakistan has offered a 50-million-rupee (615,000-dollar) reward for information leading to Fazlullah's death or capture, and rumours have circulated for weeks that he is critically injured or close to capture.

Fazlullah 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.

He 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.

Armed Taliban instead marched into the district of Buner in April, putting Fazlullah's fighters within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the national capital Islamabad, and Pakistan unleashed its fresh military offensive.

Abbas said that the operation in Swat and two other northwest districts was almost over, but said the top leadership remained elusive, with many simply disappearing into the mountains of the rugged region.

"We are constantly targeting militant leaders. They always keep themselves protected," Abbas said.

Information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told the same press conference that the area had been cleared of "terrorists", but a military statement issued Wednesday said that some pockets of resistance remained.

The military claim to have killed about 1,600 militants in their northwest operation, but such tolls are impossible to verify.

As Swat operations wrap up, military and government officials have vowed to open up a second front against Pakistan's main Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who is holed up in the lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border.