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Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 11:54 UK

Taliban say Swat leader 'alive'

Taliban supporters in Mingora Feb 2009
Maulana Fazlullah commands the loyalty of many militants in Swat

The Taliban has denied reports that their leader in Pakistan's Swat valley, Maulana Fazlullah, is close to death.

A Taliban spokesman told the BBC he had not been injured and played a recording purportedly by the cleric. It was not clear when the message was recorded.

Maulana Fazlullah was reported by the military to have been critically wounded during the army's recent offensive in the Swat valley.

Pakistan's army says it has now largely defeated militants based in the region.

The latest fighting in the Swat valley began in April when Pakistani Taliban forces expanded their operations into districts only 96km (60 miles) from the capital.

Under the terms of a peace deal, militants were expected to disarm in exchange for the implementation of Sharia law throughout the Malakand division, which includes Swat valley.

The army accused the Taliban of reneging on the deal.

As the fighting intensified some two million people were displaced. Many of these have now started returning home after the army said it had largely secured the region.

'Alive and healthy'

The message by Maulana Fazlullah played to the BBC is his first since reports that he was wounded some weeks ago.

Correspondents say that the cleric's voice sounded weak in the recording - but the Taliban spokesman was quick to deny any suggestion that he had been wounded.

"Taliban chief Fazlullah is alive, healthy and has never been wounded," Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan also told the AFP news agency.

In the recording Maulana Fazlullah announced an amnesty for five prominent political and business figures in the region. They had earlier been asked to appear before an Islamic court to respond to charges against them.

The army has as yet made no comment on the Taliban denial. It had earlier said that he had been wounded in an airstrike but could not confirm his exact condition.

Local residents also told the BBC that they believed he had been wounded in an army strike.

Last week interior minister Rehman Malik confirmed to the BBC that Maulana Falzullah had been critically injured in an attack.

Rise to power

Maulana Fazlullah started out as a prayer leader at the mosque in his village.

But 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.

He is the son-in-law of the cleric Sufi Muhammad who was the architect of the original peace deal between the Taliban and the government in which Sharia law was implemented across the Malakand division in the Pakistan's north-west.

Pakistan's army says it has now shifted its focus to the Taliban hideouts in the tribal district of South Waziristan, which is where Pakistan's Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud has his headquarters.

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