ISLAMABAD – Two pro-Taliban clerics were killed in a shootout between security forces and militants in northwestern Pakistan Saturday, a day after around 40 people were killed in a suicide attack in a mosque, the military said.
Government forces arrested the clerics Thursday and were transporting them and other prisoners in a military convoy to the main northwestern city of Peshawar for interrogation.
Militants first hit the convoy with a roadside bomb, then opened fire with assault rifles, triggering a shootout.
Both Amir Izzat Khan and Mohammad Alam were killed in this clash, military spokesman Athar Abbas told a news conference, referring to the clerics.
One soldier was killed and five wounded in the fight.
The clash took place near the town of Mardan on the main road leading to Swat valley, where security forces launched a major operation last month to flush out militants.
Khan and Alam were close aides to Sufi Mohammad, a cleric who struck a peace deal with authorities in February to end violence in Swat. The pact collapsed after militants refused to lay down arms and began expanding their influence in nearby districts.
Abbas said 17 militants and three soldiers were killed in fighting in Swat in the last 24 hours and government forces had secured several more areas from the militants.
He said the security forces were expected to clear the main valley within days, but would need some more time to secure peripheral areas.
Abbas said 1,305 militants and 105 soldiers have been killed since the army's operation began.
Militants have carried out nine reprisal bomb attacks in several cities and towns in recent weeks.
At least 40 people were killed and dozens were wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself during Friday prayers in a mosque in Upper Dir district, near Swat.
Thursday, militants shot dead five policemen and a soldier after first targeting a convoy with a roadside bomb in Mardan just hours after U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, visited the town to see camps set up for some of the 2.5 million people who fled the conflict.
The United States and Pakistan's other Western allies, worried that nuclear-armed Pakistan could slide into chaos, have welcomed the Swat offensive.
Speaking at the end of his three-day visit Friday, Holbrooke noted a positive change in Pakistani attitudes and in the army's readiness to act against the militants, but said Pakistan needed international support to succeed.
Holbrooke announced the United States aimed to give Pakistan $200 million, in addition to $110 million already pledged, to help it deal with displaced people from Swat. He has also urged European and Islamic nations to do more to help.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani urged the United States to write off its debt to Pakistan to help him grapple with insurgency, displacement of people and global recession.
Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani said Thursday his forces had snuffed out organized resistance in Swat and would conduct operations on a limited scale to destroy militant hideouts, and run their leaders to ground.