swat, pakistan -- Islamic militants reportedly captured and beheaded three militiamen and a police officer Friday while government troops and helicopter gunships attacked the nearby stronghold of a radical cleric in northwestern Pakistan.
The fighting came a day after at least 20 people were killed in a suicide bombing in another area of Swat district, as the conflict intensifies between the government of President Pervez Musharraf and pro-Taliban forces.
The militants displayed four severed heads in Imam Dheri village near Swat, said Badshah Gul Wazir, home secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan.
A few hours earlier, militiamen with the provincial Frontier Constabulary, supported by army helicopters, attacked the base of cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who runs a seminary in Imam Dheri and leads a band of armed militants.
Hundreds of villagers fled as the two sides battled across the Swat River, firing grenade launchers, mortars and other weapons. Police said at least one militant and two bystanders were killed. An aide to Fazlullah confirmed that one of the cleric’s fighters was killed.
Villagers said four gunships were hovering over the area, and reported loud explosions throughout the day.
Pakistan deployed 2,500 militiamen of the regional border guard force to Swat this week to confront Fazlullah, whose group sent thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan in 2001.