Fri, Feb 20, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Cleric in Taliban disarmament talks

SWAT SOLUTION? On Tuesday, a TV reporter was shot and killed at a march organized by the cleric, Sufi Muhammad, sparking protests by Pakistani journalists

AP AND AFP , MINGORA AND PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN

A hardline cleric sought yesterday to convince the Taliban to disarm under a pact with Pakistan’s government that has been criticized at home and abroad as giving into militants ravaging the country’s northwest, a militant spokesman said.

Monday’s deal allows for the imposition of Islamic law in the former tourist resort of Swat and surrounding districts in exchange for an end to a brutal insurgency that has killed hundreds and sent up to a third of its 1.5 million people fleeing.

A similar deal in Swat last year collapsed after a few months and was blamed for giving insurgents time to regroup their forces.

The cleric, Sufi Muhammad, met with Swat Valley Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah in an undisclosed location, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said. Fazlullah is the son-in-law of Muhammad, an Islamist leader once imprisoned but who has since publicly renounced violence.

“They are discussing how to ensure peace and how to ensure the provision of speedy justice” to the people, Khan said.

On Tuesday, a Pakistani TV reporter who had been covering a peace march by Muhammad and his supporters was shot and killed.

Authorities have not speculated about who was behind the killing of Musa Khan Khel, 28, and neither has his employer, Geo TV.

Khan condemned the killing, saying whoever did it wanted to “to derail the peace process.”

Hamid Mir, one of Khel’s colleagues, told a gathering of mourners in Swat that Khel’s body was riddled with 32 bullet wounds.

More than 500 journalists, members of civil society and lawyers marched from the press club to the governor’s house in Peshawar, asking the government to protect media personnel.

Over the last 18 months, militants have routed the police, beheaded political opponents and burned scores of schools for girls in the Swat Valley, which lies next to Pakistan’s tribal regions close to the Afghan border, where Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have long held sway.

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. They say the laws would not be implemented until the militants disarm.

The main changes would involve already existing regulations that were never enforced, for instance, allowing religious scholars to advise judges, officials said. They say the laws would not ban girls from schooling or introduce other hard-line measures, as some Taliban fighters would like.

But many critics say the deal effectively means ceding the region to the Taliban and fear it would embolden other militant groups challenging Pakistan’s shaky secular government. NATO has warned it risks creating a “safe haven.”

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