Pakistan Claims Upper Hand Against Taliban

Pakistani troops have mosty cleared pro-Taliban militants from the Swat Valley and continue to pursue the insurgents into the mountains that ring the scenic basin, the regional commander said today.

Pakistani Maj. Gen. Nasser Janjua said they had drawn a bead on the militant's secretive leader, Maulana Fazlullah, and felt confident he would be captured or killed soon.

"Everywhere he goes, I chase him with artillery and helicopters," Janjua said. "We will sort him out."

He and other commanders who took journalists on a helicopter tour of Swat today said the militants who swept into the picturesque valley -- long a popular tourist destination -- were a transnational mix of local pro-Taliban elements, Afghan, Uzbek, Chechen insurgents and even Arab al Qaeda fighters.

Fazlullah, a local cleric who preaches a rigid brand of Islam on his illegal radio station, was not the mastermind behind the group, Janjua said.

"There are people behind him," he said. "They were his brain power."

The militants had terrorized the local community in Swat, blowing up CD and video shops, bombing schools for girls and warning barbers of dire consequences if they trimmed beards.

The 15,000 Pakistani ground troops that swept into the valley, backed by Cobra helicopters and artillery, killed at least 290 militants while losing only five of their own men, Janjua said. It was impossible to verify the figures.

A spokesman for Fazlullah had previously offered a far different account of the casualties, but in recent days the insurgent leadership has gone underground.

Janjua said he believed they were holed up in Piochar, an isolated mountain hamlet near Pakistan's tribal areas that was now being targeted by the army.

Lt. Gen. Yasser, the corps commander for Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, said the mission was far from over but that its early success showed that the Pakistan army had not lost focus in fighting the war on terror.

U.S. and other western officials have expressed concern in recent weeks that Pakistan, considered a crucial ally in the fight against terrorism, had been distracted from pressing security concerns by a major political crisis.

That crisis led President Pervez Musharraf to declare de-facto martial law in Pakistan last month and later to step down as army chief, just as the operation in Swat was getting underway.

"I think it [the alleged loss of focus] is a most unfair assumption, because the political crisis in Islamabad is not our business," said Lt. Gen. Massood Aslam, the corps commander for the frontier. "The troops here and on the border with Afghanistan have as much focus as ever."