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Page last updated at 15:08 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 16:08 UK

Swat Taliban chief 'near death'

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Mingora

Taleban supporters in Mingora, the capital of Pakistan's Swat valley, 21 February 2008
Maulana Fazlullah commands the loyalty of many militants in Swat

The leader of Taliban militants in Pakistan's Swat district has been critically wounded and is close to death, the BBC has learned.

The information about Maulana Fazlullah confirms statements from senior government and security officials.

Former village cleric Fazlullah founded the branch of the Taliban which eventually took over the Swat valley.

After a recent offensive, Pakistan's army says it has almost defeated rebels in that sector of the north-west.

It has been battling Taliban militants there for about two months and the government says it has regained control of the region.

'No medicine'

The information about Maulana Fazlullah was gathered from interviews carried out by the BBC in his heartland in the north-west of Pakistan.

"Maulana Fazlullah was actually hit in two air strikes, and is critically wounded," Mingora resident Wasif Ali - who did not disclose his real name for personal security reasons - told the BBC during a trip to Swat.

"He is now stranded in Imam Dehri without any access to medical assistance and is close to death."

Mr Ali has close contacts with the militants and has been keeping a close watch on their movements in the area.

He confirmed that another senior Taliban leader, Shah Duran, was also killed in an air strike as earlier stated by the army.

Taleban supporters in Swat, 21 February 2009
The Taliban overran the Swat valley earlier this year

Interviews with other locals corroborated claims that Maulana Fazlullah had been seriously injured.

On Wednesday, Pakistan's top military spokesman, Maj General Athar Abbas, said that Maulana Fazlullah had been hurt in an airstrike.

"But we cannot confirm his exact condition at the moment," he said.

Maulana Fazlullah used to be a prayer leader at the mosque in his village.

He became the most powerful man in Swat after using a radio station to broadcast his messages in the area.

Eventually he called for his version of Islamic law in the region. At the height of his power, his militants became the main law enforcers in Swat.

In April, Pakistan's army launched an operation against his forces following the violation of a peace deal with the government.

Mr Ali and his family stayed in Swat through the entire operation.

He said the fiercest fighting took place during the first three days of the military's assault on the urban areas.

"It was when they pushed the Taliban off the emerald mines," he said.

"The gunships were right on top of my homes when they opened fire on the militants.

"We hid in the bathrooms and prayed for it to end."

He says many of the Taliban were killed in that onslaught, while the rest melted away.

Currently, Swat's urban centres are being strictly patrolled by the military.

Mingora remains largely deserted as the military seeks out the remaining Taliban and arrests suspects.

Armoured vehicles and heavily armed troops patrol the city streets to ensure they retain total control of an area which remains volatile.

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