Thu, Feb 19, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Pakistanis rally for peace in militant stronghold

AP , MINGORA, PAKISTAN

Supporters of Pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Muhammad march yesterday in Mingora, the main city of Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

PHOTO: AP

A hardline cleric led hundreds of supporters in a peace march in Pakistan’s Swat Valley yesterday aimed at convincing Taliban militants to lay down their weapons under a pact with the government.

NATO and Britain raised concerns about the deal, which imposes Islamic law and suspends a military offensive in the one-time tourist haven that is now largely under militant control. NATO, which has 55,000 troops across the border in Afghanistan, warned the deal risked giving extremists a “safe haven.”

But the US reacted cautiously, with the State Department saying it was still trying to understand Pakistan’s strategy.

The regional government in Pakistan’s northwest struck the deal on Monday with Sufi Muhammad, an aging pro-Taliban cleric who is father-in-law to Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah. Muhammad agreed to talk to Fazlullah in return for the pledge to introduce Islamic law in the valley, where militants have routed the police, beheaded political opponents and burned scores of schools for girls.

Muhammad and his supporters, carrying black and white flags representing the Taliban and peace, marched through Swat’s main city of Mingora as jubilant residents chanted: “God is great! We want peace!”

Fighting between security forces and militants has killed hundreds of people in Swat over the past year, while up to a third of the valley’s 1.5 million people have fled. While many Swat residents are desperate for calm, critics warned the deal could embolden militants.

The truce “is certainly reason for concern,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said on Tuesday in Brussels. “We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven.”

A statement from the British High Commission in Islamabad said: “Previous peace deals have not provided a comprehensive and long-term solution to Swat’s problems.”

“We need to be confident that they will end violence — not create space for further violence,” it said.

Pakistani officials insist the deal is not a concession, but rather that it addresses the long-standing demands of residents in Swat and surrounding areas for a more efficient justice system.

The main changes involve already existing regulations that were never enforced, for instance, allowing religious scholars to advise judges, officials said. There are no publicized plans to ban girls from schooling, as hardline Taliban would want.

“We will not introduce the Taliban system here,” Bashir Bilour, a senior provincial government leader, said yesterday. “This is a system about justice. It is for producing swift justice.”

Pakistani Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman has said President Asif Ali Zardari would not sign off on the agreement “until peace is restored in the region.”

The Swat Taliban, meanwhile, have said they will stop fighting once Islamic law is in place and are already observing a ceasefire.

When pressed by reporters at the State Department on Tuesday, spokesman Gordon Duguid said the US was seeking a “fuller explanation” from Pakistan.

“As I understand it, Islamic law is within the constitutional framework of Pakistan,” he said. “So I don’t know that that is particularly an issue for anyone outside of Pakistan to discuss.”

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