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Pakistani forces attack cleric's headquarters

Militants capture and kill 4 officers

Residents of Swat, Pakistan, viewed the wreckage yesterday from Thursday's bombing that killed 20 and wounded 35. Residents of Swat, Pakistan, viewed the wreckage yesterday from Thursday's bombing that killed 20 and wounded 35. (Mohammad Zubair/associated press)

SWAT, Pakistan - Islamic militants reportedly captured and beheaded three government border guards and a police officer yesterday, while troops and helicopter gunships attacked the stronghold of a radical cleric in northwestern Pakistan.

The fighting came a day after a suicide bombing killed 20 people in another part of Swat district in the intensifying conflict between the US-allied government of President Pervez Musharraf and pro-Taliban forces in the volatile tribal region along the Afghan border.

After killing the four guards, the militants displayed the severed heads in Imam Dheri village near Swat, said Badshah Gul Wazir, home secretary for the volatile North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.

Wazir would not confirm reports that the four slain men were among eight officers captured.

A few hours earlier, guards from the regional Frontier Constabulary, supported by army helicopters, attacked the stronghold of cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who runs a seminary in Imam Dheri and leads a band of militants.

Hundreds of villagers fled as the two sides battled across the rushing Swat River, firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells. Police said one militant was dead and stray bullets killed two civilians near the river.

"I never saw this type of violence in my life," said Abdul Hamid, a 70-year-old shop owner in Swat, who sobbed as he watched thick smoke rise from trees set afire on a mountain where fighting also broke out.

"Swat was one of the safest places on Pakistan, and now it has become Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don't know what will happen in future," Hamid said.

An aide of Fazlullah confirmed one of the cleric's fighters was killed and said four others were wounded in the fighting.

Pakistan deployed 2,500 members of the regional border guard force to Swat this week to confront Fazlullah, who leads a banned pro-Taliban group that sent thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan during the US-led invasion six years ago.

Fazlullah abandoned his house yesterday but returned by evening.

The battle followed a suicide car bombing Thursday that hit a truck carrying Frontier Constabulary troops through Mingora, the main town in Swat district. The attack killed 19 soldiers and a civilian and wounded 35 people.

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