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Pakistan previously detained, then freed militant suspected in attack on teenage girl activist

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Oct. 9, 2012: A wounded Pakistani girl, Malala Yousufzai, is moved to a helicopter to be taken to Peshawar for treatment in Mingora, Swat Valley, Pakistan. (AP)

One of the two Taliban militants suspected of attacking a teenage girl activist was detained by the Pakistani military in 2009 but subsequently released, intelligence officials said Thursday.

Malala Yousufzai, 14, was shot and critically wounded on Oct. 9 as she headed home from school in the northwest Swat Valley. The Taliban said they targeted Malala, a fierce advocate for girls' education, because she promoted "Western thinking" and was critical of the militant group.

The military detained Attaullah and several of his associates during the army's 2009 offensive in Swat because of suspected ties with the Pakistani Taliban, which had established effective control over the valley at the time, said two intelligence officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The military successfully pushed most of the militants out of Swat, but Attaullah was released because of a lack of evidence linking him to specific attacks, said the officials. It's unclear how long he was held.

Authorities have detained several of Attaullah's family members in Swat, but he remains at large, said the officials.

It's possible he could have fled to neighboring Afghanistan. The Taliban have said the attack on Malala was planned by the head of the Swat Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, and his deputies, who escaped to Afghanistan following the military offensive in 2009.

The shooting of Malala outraged people around the world and stepped up pressure on the Pakistani government to intensify its fight against the Taliban and their allies. But Pakistani leaders are divided on whether the government should respond by targeting the Taliban's last major sanctuary in the country along the Afghan border. Pushing into the North Waziristan tribal area could trigger a backlash of attacks elsewhere in Pakistan.

Malala was airlifted to England earlier this week for specialized treatment and to protect her from follow-on attacks by the Taliban, who have threatened to target her again until she is killed.

A Pakistani official said Wednesday that Malala was improving and has been moving her limbs. The official, who said he was briefed by Malala's doctors in England, spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't cleared to talk on the record about the case.

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Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.