Pakistan stepped up its offensive against the Taliban on Friday, slapping a 600,000-dollar price on the head of a firebrand rebel and claiming to have captured another militant stronghold.
The government hopes the bounty will help it get -- dead or alive -- Maulana Fazlullah, a hardline Taliban cleric and commander who masterminded a two-year uprising in the northwest Swat valley to enforce sharia law.
The interior ministry published names and mugshots of "miscreant-terrorists" from the Taliban leadership in Swat, offering 50 million rupees (616,500 dollars) for Fazlullah and 10 million rupees each for 15 of his bearded aides.
Fazlullah led thousands of supporters, a mixture of hardcore ideologues and disenfranchised young men, in a brutal campaign that beheaded opponents, burned scores of schools and fought against government troops since November 2007.
He is a son-in-law of elderly pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammad, who secured a government deal to put three million people in the northwest under sharia law in February -- an agreement that failed to stem the fighting.
After armed Taliban marched into the district of Buner in April, putting Fazlullah's fighters within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the national capital Islamabad, Pakistan unleashed a fresh military offensive.
The military says more than 1,200 militants have been killed since the air and ground assault began on April 26 and about 2.4 million have people fled the fighting, the largest exodus in Pakistan since partition from India in 1947.
|Pakistani soldiers patrol a deserted street in Mingora, the capital of the troubled Swat Valley on May 27|
The United States has welcomed the offensive against the militants, whom it has branded the biggest terror threat to the West.
Islamabad says around 15,000 soldiers are fighting up to 2,000 militants in Swat, where on Friday the military declared another militant stronghold had been cleared and 28 militants killed over the last 24 hours.
"Security forces continued with cordon and search operation and successfully cleared the stronghold of miscreants at Peochar village," the military said.
Commandos were this month flown into Peochar valley, a personal stronghold of Fazlullah and his top lieutenants, but it was not immediately clear how much of the area remained under militant control Friday.
It is impossible to confirm independently information released by the army because the conflict area is a closed military zone.
Medical officials, journalists and aid workers are unable to confirm civilian death tolls, but many of those displaced by the conflict have told of innocent relatives being killed in the offensive.
President Asif Ali Zardari paid a rare visit Friday to thousands of displaced families sheltering in a camp in the torrid summer heat and struggling with limited provisions, promising they would soon return home.
"The day is not far off when you will return in a better atmosphere than that which forced you to abandon your homes," Zardari, who suffers from dire approval ratings, told the displaced in the northwest.
Pakistan has called for one billion dollars to help the uprooted civilians rebuild their lives. Observers say it will cost the cash-strapped country far more in reconstruction and filling the vacuum after military operations.
Pakistanis are also increasingly concerned about a militant backlash to the operation, following a recent surge of bomb attacks against civilians in major urban areas.
A succession of blasts tore through northwest cities killing 15 people on Thursday, one day after a spectacular gun, grenade and van bombing killed 24 people in Lahore and damaged a building of Pakistan's premier spy agency.
A spokesman for Pakistan's most wanted man, Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, said his group carried out the Lahore attack and warned of more "massive attacks" in the wake of the offensive against militants.
Baitullah Mehsud commands Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) and is Pakistan's most wanted militant, with a five-million-dollar reward posted by the United States.