Clashes in NW Pakistan valley after suicide attack

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MINGORA, Pakistan, Oct 26 (Reuters) Troops battled militants near the stronghold of a Taliban-style movement in northwest Pakistan today, a day after a suicide bomber killed 21 people in the area, 17 of them soldiers, security officials said.

Troops hit back with mortar bombs and gunfire after followers of a pro-Taliban cleric fired rockets at them in the scenic northwestern valley of Swat, where more than 2,000 soldiers have been sent in response to growing militancy, they said.

''Our security forces attracted fire and retaliated. There is no military operation,'' said Akhthar Ali Shah, a senior police official in the town of Mingora. There was no immediate word of any casualties.

Residents heard several loud explosions in the area of Imamdheri, and said helicopter gunships were whirring overhead.

Swat has seen a surge in militant activity since Maulana Fazlullah, a pro-Taliban cleric, reportedly launched an illegal FM radio station calling people to jihad or Muslim holy war.

Fazlullah is de facto head of a pro-Taliban group, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) or Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law, which was banned by US ally President Pervez Musharraf in January 2002.

Militants have attacked security forces and carried out bomb attacks in recent months in Swat and have been forcing residents there to follow a strict Islamic code.

Pakistani tribal areas have been a hotbed of support for al Qaeda and Taliban militants who have fled Afghanistan. Thousands of soldiers and militants have been killed in battles in these regions.

Violence has escalated across Pakistan since July, when militants scrapped a peace deal and the army stormed a radical mosque in the capital, Islamabad.

Officials suspect Islamist militants were behind the worst blast in Pakistan's 60-year history, when at least 139 people were killed in Karachi last week in a suicide attack on a procession led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on her return from eight years of self-imposed exile.


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