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Pakistan Forces Swoop For Taliban Leader In Swat

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistani security forces have intensified a hunt for the Pakistani Taliban leader in the Swat Valley, military officials said, and a U.S. drone killed four militants in a missile strike near the Afghan border.

Pakistani forces have made gains against the militants recently, months after Taliban advances and bomb attacks raised fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan's future and contributed to a slide in investor confidence.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on September 13, the top Taliban leader in the Swat Valley, about 120 kilometers northwest of Islamabad, was surrounded, adding the back of the Taliban insurgency had been broken.

The military's chief spokesman was more cautious, saying efforts were being made to capture the Swat Taliban chief, a self-styled cleric called Fazlullah, but media reports of his imminent capture were speculation.

Military officials in the former tourist valley said troops were searching in different places and clashes had erupted.

"Our teams are carrying out search operations, particularly for him in two or three areas. For sure he can't flee from Swat," said a senior military official who declined to be identified, referring to Fazlullah.

"We'd like to capture him today," the official said, while declining to say when he might be tracked down.

"We don't want to waste time with such operations but you can't give a time frame."

Security forces killed 16 militants, at least two of them senior Taliban members, while one soldier was killed in clashes during searches in Swat on September 14, the military said.

Drone Strike

The army launched an offensive in the Swat Valley in late April and killed more than 2,000 fighters, according to the army. There has been no independent verification of that estimate.

The Pakistani Taliban under the overall command of Baitullah Mehsud were held responsible for a wave of attacks across the country from 2007, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December that year.

Mehsud was killed in a missile attack by a U.S. drone aircraft in his South Waziristan stronghold on the Afghan border in early August.

U.S. and Pakistani officials said Mehsud's death left the militants in disarray and riven by rivalry but analysts say it is too early to say if their setbacks are a permanent blow or if they might regroup and strike back.

Early on September 14, a U.S. drone fired a missile at a Taliban vehicle near the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, on the Afghan border. A Pakistani intelligence agent said the dead were apparently foreign, but no leaders were believed among them.

Facing surging violence in Afghanistan, the United States stepped up its missile strikes in Pakistan last year, killing hundreds of militants.

Pakistan officially objects to the U.S. strikes saying they are a violation of its sovereignty and cause civilian casualties, which bolster Islamist support.

But U.S. officials have said the strikes are carried out under an agreement with Pakistan that allows its leaders to decry them in public. Some Pakistani media have suggested the strike that killed Mehsud was carried out with Pakistani coordination.

The Pakistani militants are allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan, where violence is at its most intense since the overthrow of their government in 2001, despite the arrival this year of thousands more U.S. troops.

Pakistani action against militants in lawless border lands where Afghan Taliban have bases is seen as vital to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.