Pakistani militants talk peace amid criticism

Pakistan's shaky civilian government has been under intense domestic pressure to retake control of the Swat Valley.

Pakistan violence (photo credit: AP)
Pakistan violence
(photo credit: AP)
Pakistan dispatched a pro-Taliban cleric to talk peace with militants in the former tourist haven of Swat on Tuesday, a day after it agreed to a truce with the extremists and pledged to implement Islamic law in the region as part of a widely criticized deal. A US defense official called the agreement "a negative development" and a Pakistani civil rights activist dubbed it a surrender to militants believed to control up to 80 percent of the Swat Valley, which lies near the northwest tribal regions where al-Qaida and Taliban have long had strongholds. But several Swat residents welcomed the prospect of peace after more than a year of fighting that has killed hundreds, sent up to third of the valley's 1.5 million people fleeing and ruined the tourist industry in a region less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad. "May God protect this peace deal," said Haji Javed, 40, a shop owner in Swat's main town, Mingora. "We saw a lot of destruction during the fighting between the army and the Taliban. We are happy that they have agreed to give peace a chance." The government in northwestern Pakistan announced the deal after it met with Islamists led by pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Muhammad who have long demanded that Islamic, or Shariah, law be followed in this conservative corner of Pakistan. As part of the deal, Muhammad agreed to travel to Swat and discuss peace with the militants there. Muhammad was detained in 2002 after he sent thousands to fight US troops in Afghanistan but was freed last year when he renounced violence. He is the father-in-law to Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Swat Taliban. Mohammed's spokesman Izzat Khan said Tuesday he would meet with Fazlullah. Pakistan's shaky civilian government has been under intense domestic pressure to retake control of the Swat Valley, although many Islamist lawmakers and other Islamic groups have urged it to negotiate with the militants, who are believed to number around 2,000. Some 10,000 paramilitary and army troops have been unable to beat the insurgency, which picked up after a similar deal there broke down last year, when many say militants were able to regroup and rearm. "It is hard to view this as anything other than a negative development," a senior U.S. Defense Department official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations with Pakistan and because he was not authorized to speak on the record. Many analysts questioned whether the fighters would listen to Muhammad and said they doubted the deal would stop violence, while critics asked why authorities were responding to the demands of militants who have waged a reign of terror. "This is simply a great surrender, a surrender to a handful of forces who work through rough justice and brute force," said Athar Minallah, a lawyer and civil rights activist. "Who will be accountable for those hundreds of people who have been massacred in Swat? And they go and recognize these forces as a political force. This is pathetic." Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister in North West Frontier Province, said troops in Swat would remain there but stop offensive operations and retaliate only if attacked. He stressed they would not leave the valley until the militant threat was over. A spokesman for the army said militants would have to live up to the truce deal. "At the moment, the military has been asked to hold back and allow the peace initiative there," Maj. Gen Athar Abbas said. "But it is to be seen whether they (the militants) follow this cease-fire in true letter and spirit or take undue advantage of it." Hoti said the main changes to the legal system promised by the accord already are included in existing laws stipulating Islamic justice. But he said they would be implemented only after peace was restored. Hoti said the laws, which allow for Muslim clerics to advise judges when hearing cases and the setting up of an Islamic appeals court, would ensure a much speedier and fairer justice system than the current one, which dates back to British colonial times. The rules do not ban female education or contain other strict interpretations of Shariah that have been demanded by many members of the Taliban in Pakistan - restrictions imposed by Afghanistan's Taliban regime that was ousted by the US-led invasion in late 2001.