SWAT, Pakistan — Islamic militants reportedly captured and beheaded three militiamen and a police officer Friday while government troops and helicopter gunships attacked the nearby stronghold of a radical cleric in northwestern Pakistan.
The fighting came a day after at least 20 people were killed in a suicide bombing in another area of Swat district, as the conflict intensifies between the government of President Pervez Musharraf and pro-Taliban forces.
The militants displayed four severed heads in Imam Dheri village near Swat, said Badshah Gul Wazir, home secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan.
A few hours earlier, militiamen with the provincial Frontier Constabulary, supported by army helicopters, attacked the base of cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who runs a seminary in Imam Dheri and leads a band of armed militants.
Hundreds of villagers fled as the two sides battled across the Swat River, firing grenade launchers, mortars and other weapons. Police said at least one militant and two bystanders were killed. An aide to Fazlullah confirmed that one of the cleric's fighters was killed.
Villagers said four gunships were hovering over the area, and reported loud explosions throughout the day.
Pakistan deployed 2,500 militiamen of the regional border guard force to Swat this week to confront Fazlullah, whose group sent thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan in 2001.
Troops have surrounded and attacked a stronghold of a leading militant in the district of Swat in northern Pakistan, local police say.
The pro-Taleban militant, Maulana Fazlullah, said earlier this week that he was leaving the area.
On Thursday an attack in the main town of Swat left at least 17 soldiers and a number of civilians dead.
Swat is one of a number of areas near the Afghan border where militants have been gaining control in recent months.
A BBC reporter in Swat says that the fighting has now stopped. Our correspondent says the reason for this is unclear, as there have apparently been no negotiations between the two sides.
A spokesman for Maulana Fazlullah said that one of his men had been killed in the fighting, and our correspondent says that there are unconfirmed reports that three civilians are among the dead.
Witness described heavy fighting earlier in the day.
"Heavy weapons are being fired, and there have been more than a dozen explosions. I can see black smoke rising from the hills," a local journalist told the BBC news website.
Local people are reported to be fleeing the area.
Eyewitnesses say the firing started when troops were airlifted to positions on the hilltops surrounding Maulana Fazllullah's stronghold.
- MOST OF THE BLOGOSPHERE HAS BEEN HIGHLY AND UNFAIRLY CRITICAL OF MUSHARRAF.
- ONLY THE USA, ISRAEL AND THE DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED CONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENT IF IRAQ ARE DOING MORE TO KINETICALLY COMBAT JIHADISM THAN MUSHARRAF.
- THIS IS WHAT WE SHOULD BE DOING TO HIZBALLAH AND HAMAS, TOO: SURROUND THEM AND ERADICATE THEM.