MINGORA, Pakistan - The Pakistani Army has driven Islamic militants from all the towns in a scenic northern valley and killed 290 followers of a pro-Taliban cleric who has called for a holy war against the government, a general said yesterday.
The militants, followers of cleric Maulana Fazlullah, had taken control of at least eight towns in the Swat valley since July, scattering outgunned police and erecting "Taliban station" signboards outside former police stations.
Officials accuse them of imposing a reign of terror, shutting schools for girls, and beheading locals who opposed them. Their seizure of the region demonstrated the government's feeble control in Pakistan's remote areas.
President Pervez Musharraf cited the stepped-up militancy in northern regions like Swat to justify imposing a state of emergency on Nov. 3, a move critics say was designed to silence opposition forces weary of his military rule.
Also yesterday, police said they were investigating the slaying of three supporters of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in an attack on her party's office in southwestern Pakistan.
Wajid Akbar, the district police chief, said the attack occurred Saturday morning when gunmen raided the office in Naseerabad, about 150 miles east of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province.
In the Swat valley, Major General Nasser Janjua told reporters that since launching an offensive in the area last month, his 20,000-strong force had managed to retake all the towns seized by the militants, driving 400 to 500 of them into the Piochar side valley.
"We have bottled them upward and we want to take a good toll of them," Janjua said at an army base in Mingora, the region's main town.
The rest of Fazlullah's force, initially estimated to be about 5,000 strong, apparently hid their weapons and melted back into the local population.
In Mingora, a bustling market town that was hit by militant mortar fire during the fighting but was never under militant control, there was no obvious sign of disruption from the fighting.
However, tense-looking guards watched over the army base from sandbagged posts on the roofs of adjacent buildings.
Business at the town's upscale hotels, recently built to cater for Pakistani and foreign tourists drawn by Swat's fine mountain scenery, has reportedly dried up. Janjua said it might take a year before travelers begin to return.
Troops at another base set up on a golf course in Kabal, a nearby town which had been in militant hands, appeared relaxed. Several artillery pieces which the army said had been used to pound rebels in the hills lay silent.
However, the journalists were not taken to forward positions closer to the most recent clashes.
Last week, Janjua said, the army launched an intense attack that forced thousands of people to flee the area and allowed them to seize Fazlullah's sprawling Imam Dheri complex, which includes a seminary, hostels, and a mosque near Mingora. Security forces also blew up Fazlullah's home.
Janjua forecast that militants would try to mount at least one counterattack and said it would take another three to four months to stabilize the area.
Janjua said that apart from the slain militants, 140 had been captured since the military began pouring troops, artillery, and attack helicopters into the area in November.
He said only five soldiers had been killed, with six civilians dead and 20 wounded. Militants have claimed that far more security forces and bystanders have died and that the army is exaggerating its success.
Fazlullah, the leader of a banned extremist group who sent reinforcements for the Taliban when US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, won a considerable following in the valley by using an FM radio station to campaign for the introduction of Islamic law. After months of defiance, he took up arms in July, calling for holy war against the government.
Officials says militants linked to Pakistani sectarian groups as well as the Taliban and Al Qaeda rushed to join the battle. Janjua said those killed or captured in recent weeks included some Uzbeks and citizens from "friendly" countries. He refused to elaborate.
Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency on Nov. 3 has cast a cloud over parliamentary elections that are supposed to return democracy after eight years of military rule.