Posted on Thu, May. 27, 2010
last updated: May 27, 2010 06:17:35 PM
KABUL, Afghanistan — A determined Taliban offensive in eastern Afghanistan may have become the final battle for a fugitive Taliban leader from Pakistan's Swat valley, along Afghanistan's northern border with Pakistan.
The commander of the Afghan border police in the region said Thursday that Maulana Fazlullah had died during battles over the last five days around Barg-e-Matal, an isolated village in Afghanistan's Nuristan province.
Gen. Mohammad Zaman Mamozai quoted local residents and intercepted radio transmissions as saying that Fazlullah was among a handful of Taliban fighters who'd been killed.
U.S. military, Pakistani and other Afghan officials were unable to confirm the reports Thursday amid continued fighting around Barg-e-Matal, which sits in a deep valley close to the mountainous border with the Chitral district of Pakistan. Afghan officials said that more than 500 Taliban-led insurgents, including foreign fighters, were involved in an offensive aimed at seizing control of Nuristan province.
Fazlullah became known as "Radio Mullah" because of the hard-line sermons he regularly delivered over FM radio in Pakistan's Swat valley, about 60 miles north of Islamabad, where he led an extremist militia that formed a key component of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan.
His militia, the Terik-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, seized control of Swat in 2007 and imposed a harsh version of Islamic rule on the area, igniting clashes with Pakistani security forces.
After Fazlullah reneged on a cease-fire and his gunmen expanded the territory under their control, Pakistan forces, under intense U.S. pressure, retook the region in a May 2009 offensive, but failed to capture Fazlullah.
There were conflicting reports Thursday on the state of the Taliban offensive around Barg-e-Matal.
Col. Ghulamullah, a former police chief in Nuristan who, like many Afghans, uses only one name, said Taliban-led attackers had seized two or three villages but had been repelled from other key areas.
The U.S.-led international military coalition provided air surveillance, delivered ammunition and dropped off supplies for the Afghan forces who are fighting the Taliban insurgents, according to NATO military officials.
About 200 U.S. troops were posted in Barg-e-Matal last summer and endured daily attacks from insurgents in the surrounding hills until they were withdrawn in October. Five U.S. soldiers died during the deployment.
Fazlullah gave an interview to the BBC in November in which he said he was in Afghanistan. His escape from Swat has been seen as a major failure of the Pakistan military's operation there.
One Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the government had long sought to deal with Fazlullah.
"We've been asking the Afghans, over and over, if he is on your side, capture him or kill him, but it never happened," the official said.
The Pakistani Taliban's involvement in the attack in Nuristan would suggest that its ambitions now extend beyond Pakistan. The group has been linked to the deadly attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan last December, and there are unconfirmed allegations that it played a role in the attempted car bombing in New Yorks Times Square earlier this month.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Saeed Shah in Islamabad and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this article.)
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