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SWAT, March 3: A controversial religious leader running an illegal FM radio station was booked by the local police under the Anti-Terrorism Act after a botched operation to arrest him on Friday.

Maulana Fazlullah later warned police in a speech on his radio not to repeat the “mistake of trying to arrest him”.

“Next time my supporters will not leave the attacking policemen alive,” the religious leader warned, adding that preaching Islam was not a crime and police should avoid arresting him.

Police had to postpone their operation after a large number of supporters of Maulana Fazlullah, known for airing anti-polio and anti-West views through his FM station, gathered in the Kanjo area to resist the Maulana’s arrest.

Official sources said the FIR against Maulana Fazlullah and his supporters was registered at the Kabal police station under section 11(F/3) of the ATA, dealing with inviting support for a proscribed organisation. They were also charged under sections 148, 149 and 120-B of the Pakistan Penal Code, which deals with rioting by an unruly group of people armed with deadly weapons.

The religious leader, who is son-in-law of Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariah Mohammadi’s chief Maulana Sufi Mohammad and heading the party’s Swat chapter, is enjoying support in his native Imam Dehri village and surrounding areas.

It is learnt that a high-level meeting, presided over by the DIG of Malakand Range, Rao Ameen Hashmi, was held here to take stock of the situation. The meeting was attended by Swat DPO Mohammad Yameen Khan, SSP (investigation) Zaibullah Khan and other officials.

The meeting decided to prepare a strategy for the arrest of the religious leader because his detention could trigger violence in the area, the sources said.

A heavy contingent of police was on Friday deputed in the Kanjo village where Maulana Fazlullah was scheduled to inaugurate a centre for collection of worn out pieces of the Holy Quran.

Police officials said more than hundred supporters of the religious leader were armed and any move by police to arrest him would have turned the situation violent. Normally, more than 10,000 people listen to his Friday sermons which he delivers at the Umer Farooq Mosque.

“We have to postpone the operation for the time being and we will chalk out a strategy to arrest the religious leader because he is required in various cases,” the DPO told Dawn. He said nobody would be allowed to violate the law. He urged the religious leader to surrender before police, for a case was pending against him in an anti-terrorism court.

Eyewitnesses said police encircled the religious leader when he appeared riding a horse along with his supporters. Soon the news reached adjoining areas and hundreds of people started marching towards Kanju in support of the religious leader. When police high-ups came to know about it, they decided to postpone the operation.

The religious leader rose to fame through his fiery sermons aired through his FM radio station, mostly against the West and recently against the polio eradication campaign.

His brother Fazal Ahad was killed in an air strike on a seminary in Bajaur Agency on Oct 30, which also left 81 other people dead.

Maulana Fazlullah is very popular among women who listen to his sermons and lectures. A majority of people of Imam Dehri and adjoining villages have stopped sending their daughters to schools after regularly listening to sermons of the religious leader. Following the religious leader, his supporters have also started riding horses. Most of the inhabitants of Imam Dehri are now sporting beards.

Recently, the religious leader announced to change names of some areas and renamed Imam Dehri as Iman Dehri, Koza Banda as Islam Banda and Bara Banda as Shariat Banda. Construction work on a big seminary has also started recently and 700 to 800 volunteers participate in the construction work daily. A large number of women have sold their jewellery and donated the money to the seminary.