Pakistan reaches truce with militant faction
Pakistani authorities announced Wednesday that they had struck a truce with a militant faction that moved last year to impose Taliban-style rule in a once-popular tourist area.
The deal between government officials and Islamic militants in the scenic Swat valley could presage broader accords with militants in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The 15-point pact was signed despite explicit expressions of concern from the United States about such truces -- the latest warning delivered only a day earlier by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte in Washington.
Pakistan’s new coalition government, which took office seven weeks ago after winning parliamentary elections in February, has said it is willing to talk with extremists who are prepared to renounce violence. But the Bush administration and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization say they believe that Islamic militants will use respites to strengthen and rearm themselves and resume attacks when it suits them. They also say cross-border strikes aimed at Western troops in Afghanistan have edged up since negotiations began.
The militancy that erupted in the Swat valley nearly a year ago was something of an anomaly because the area does not lie within the semiautonomous tribal belt that abuts the Afghan-Pakistani border. It is in a part of the North-West Frontier Province that is at least in theory under the control of the central government.
Fighters led by a charismatic cleric, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, seized control in half a dozen localities in Swat, running off police and proclaiming Islamic rule. A subsequent Pakistani military offensive drove the militants into the mountains, but Fazlullah was not captured and attacks against government troops continued.
The latest occurred Tuesday, hours before the signing of the accord was announced in the provincial capital, Peshawar. A policeman was killed when militants attacked a checkpoint in the valley, about 100 miles north of the national capital, Islamabad.
The new provincial government, led by a secular party devoted to the rights of ethnic Pashtuns, took the lead in negotiating the accord. Most of those living in the tribal areas and Swat are Pashtun, as are the Taliban.
Under the pact, the government appeared to have made significant concessions. It agreed to begin pulling back troops, provided that attacks against the military cease. The government suggested that Fazlullah, previously one of the country’s most wanted men, would not be actively pursued. It also agreed that the Swat valley would come under a system of Sharia, or Islamic law, with Islamic clerics and scholars advising civil judges.
In return, the militants softened some of the harsher measures they had taken to enforce their stringent form of Islam. They agreed to stop their campaign against polio vaccinations, which they have denounced as a Western plot, and girls’ schooling. They also promised to stop terrorizing barbers who shaved men’s beards and blowing up music and video stores.
As part of the agreement, Fazlullah’s followers pledged not to display weapons in public, though they did not agree to disarm. The group’s former heavily fortified headquarters is to be turned into a university, both sides said.
The militants also agreed to hand over any “foreign” fighters in the area -- the usual term for Al Qaeda-linked militants from Arab or Central Asian countries.
The accord was announced at a joint appearance by Bashir Bilour, a senior minister in the provincial government, and Ali Bakht Khan, an envoy of Fazlullah. “We will follow this agreement and will work together to bring peace to Swat,” Khan said. Bilour outlined the terms without taking questions.
Both sides indicated that a prisoner swap would take place soon, but no details were given. Khan said the government was holding more than 200 suspected followers of Fazlullah.
Fazlullah made a name for himself with incendiary sermons carried on an illicit FM radio frequency, earning himself the nickname “Mullah FM.” Under the agreement, frequencies jammed by the government will be reopened.
Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and Times staff writer King from Islamabad.