Pakistan arrests Swat Taliban leader

Muslim Khan, spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban and second in command in Swat, is the first top figure to be taken into custody.

In the first major arrest of its kind in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Pakistani authorities say they have taken into custody one of the Taliban’s leaders in Swat, along with four other commanders. Muslim Khan was the second in command of the Taliban in Swat, and became an official spokesman of both that group and the wider Tehrik-e-Taliban, an umbrella group of militants that includes fighters based in the country’s tribal areas.

The arrests displayed a rare bit of good police work, and may help bring a much needed boost of confidence in the Swat operation.

Both the international press and Pakistani’s domestic news have criticized the military’s operation in Swat as largely ineffective. Despite several months of fighting and the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers, no significant leaders of the Taliban have been captured in Swat. And the army has been accused of indiscriminately shelling villages and towns, killing civilians, while failing to make arrests on the ground.

The details of how Khan was apprehended are unclear. But the Pakistan Tribune reported today that the Taliban have claimed that Khan and the others were arrested after going to hold secret talks with the Pakistani military:

According to the Swat Taliban acting spokesman Salman, the fresh peace talks were mediated by one Kamal Khan, a resident of Deolai village in Swat resettled in the US. “This time we wanted to talk directly with the Army as the previous two peace deals with the ANP-led NWFP government didn’t work,” Salman argued.

Salman told the Pakistan Tribune: “I last spoke to Taliban commander Mahmud Khan three days ago. The way he talked made me suspicious. I figured out that he wasn’t allowed to talk freely. It seemed he was in the custody of the military,” the Taliban spokesman said.

The news could not be verified, but if true would be significant: The Pakistani military has ruled any more peace talks with the Taliban. Earlier talks brokered with the Taliban in Swat fell apart in February, after the militants used the cease-fire to spread into neighboring territories.

The arrests comes amid what appears to be a turning of the tide in Pakistan’s campaign against militants, with militants surrendering en masse, as The Daily Times in Pakistan recently reported:

Brigadier Salman Akbar, heading the military operation in Kabal tehsil, told journalists that about 105 Taliban – including a close aide of Mulla Fazlullah and a dozen trained suicide bombers – surrendered in Kabal on Tuesday…
He said Taliban were contacting security personnel to surrender to the army. He said that around 165 Taliban had surrendered over the last three days.”
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