Ambush kills aides to pro-Taliban Pakistani cleric

ISLAMABAD – Militants ambushed a military convoy in Pakistan's volatile northwest on Saturday, killing two detained aides of a senior cleric with close ties to the Taliban in the Swat Valley, the army said.

It was not clear if the attack was an attempt to rescue the prisoners or assassinate them before then could provide intelligence to the military — or even if the attackers knew that Taliban-linked prisoners were in the convoy.

But it underscored the instability in the northwestern region, even one month after some 15,000 troops poured in to end the Taliban's control there.

A roadside bomb and gunfire hit the convoy as it traveled from Sakhakot town near Swat to the main northwestern city of Peshawar early Saturday, the army said. One soldier also died in the attack and five were wounded.

The army identified the prisoners as Muhammad Maulana Alam and Ameer Izzat Khan, top aides to hard-line cleric Sufi Muhammad, who is father-in-law to Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah. Sufi Muhammad negotiated a peace deal with the government that was widely seen as allowing the Taliban to seize control of the valley.

The deal collapsed earlier this year when the Taliban advanced into neighboring districts, triggering a military offensive that prompted a spree of retaliatory attacks by militants in the northwest and beyond.

"These two were being transported so that intelligence agencies could investigate them when an IED and gun attack was launched on the military convoy," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters Saturday, using the abbreviation for an improvised explosive device.

The motive for the attack was not known yet, but he added, "I wouldn't rule out that they were targeted or killed on purpose."

Rasul Bahksh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University, said the killings may have been deliberate to prevent Alam and Khan from giving the military information that could help find Taliban leaders in the Swat region.

"I think it was a targeted killing by the militants because they could identify the whereabouts of some of the militant" leaders, Rais told the Express 24/7 television network. "They were high-value targets."

No senior Taliban figures have so far been captured or killed in the month-old army offensive in Swat, which is seen as a test of Pakistan's resolve to take on militants who have challenged the central government's rule by strengthening their influence in the border region with Afghanistan.

Abbas said 1,305 militants and 105 soldiers have been killed in the Swat offensive.

Security forces detained Alam and Khan during a raid last Thursday at a religious school in a district near Swat. Another aide to Muhammad, Syed Wahab, was also seized. It was not immediately known if Wahab was in the convoy on Saturday.

The Taliban have vowed a campaign of retaliatory attacks for the military offensive, and a series of bombings and shootings have hit security forces and civilian targets across the northwest, including a marketplace and a bus stop.

On Friday, an attacker wearing an explosive vest blew himself up inside a packed mosque during prayers, killing at least 33 people and wounding 40 more in Haya Gai village in Upper Dir, a rough-and-tumble district next to Swat.

Atif-ur-Rehman, a top official in Upper Dir's government, said the mosque may have been targeted because villagers had opposed Taliban who wanted to move into the area and had sometimes clashed with them. Last month, villagers closed a road leading from their community to a nearby Taliban stronghold.

"They have been up in arms with militants. The move to block the Taliban's entry route to the village could be the main reason for the blast," he told The Associated Press.

Associated Press Writer Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

in Bulgaria. AP