Pakistan says Swat deal agreed

DIFFERENCE OF OPINION: While officials said an open-ended ceasefire had been agreed, the Taliban said no decision would be made until the Feb. 15 ceasefire expires


Mon, Feb 23, 2009 - Page 5

Pakistan has agreed to an open-ended ceasefire with Taliban militants in the Swat Valley, government officials said, extending a truce as the country pursues broader, much-criticized talks aimed at calming a large swathe of its northwestern region bordering Afghanistan.

The Taliban leader in Swat, however, said on Saturday that the militants would only decide on whether to halt fighting for good after a 10-day ceasefire announced on Feb. 15 expires — and that decision hinged on the government taking unspecified “practical steps.”

The twists underscored the fragile nature of peace talks in Pakistan’s northwest, where al-Qaeda and Taliban militants have established strongholds. Past peace deals have collapsed, including one last year with militants in Swat that security officials said simply allowed the insurgents to regroup.

Also on Saturday, a roadside bomb killed one person elsewhere in Pakistan’s chaotic northwest along a supply route that is used heavily by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley have beheaded opponents, torched girls schools and terrorized the police to gain control of much of the one-time tourist haven, despite a lengthy military offensive. Hundreds have been killed and up to a third of the valley’s 1.5 million residents have fled, making the government increasingly desperate to pacify the area.

Following talks with a hard-line, Taliban-linked cleric, the government agreed last Monday to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas if the extremists stop fighting.

It also suspended the military offensive, though it did not pull out troops. The cleric, Sufi Muhammad, was dispatched to persuade the militants to agree to peace.

On Saturday, senior regional official Syed Muhammad Javed told reporters in Swat: “The government and the Taliban fighters have decided to observe a permanent ceasefire. The Taliban has agreed to it and so do we.”

Area government official, Shaukat Yousufzai, confirmed that both sides agreed to extend the ceasefire, but said the talks between Muhammad’s group and representatives of Swat Valley Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah — Muhammad’s son-in-law — would proceed.

The roadside bomb on Saturday apparently targeted an oil tanker headed to NATO troops in Afghanistan, local government official Ameer Zada Khan said. The remote-controlled bomb killed one person and wounded two others near the Landi Kotal area, he said.