In a significant concession to Islamic militants battling the central government, Pakistani authorities Monday agreed to allow the imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, in a onetime tourist destination just 100 miles northwest of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
The move, the main provision of a cease-fire formally announced Monday by both sides, is likely to set off alarm bells in Washington. The Obama administration has urged Pakistan’s struggling civilian government to move decisively against Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants in tribal areas along the Afghan border, where Sharia is already in effect, and elsewhere in Pakistan’s volatile northwest.
The decision by Pakistan’s government appeared aimed at appeasing followers of a radical cleric, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, who in late 2007 seized control of the scenic Swat Valley. For months, Faz- lullah’s fighters have been terrorizing residents of Swat by beheading police officers and burning down girls schools, to which they object on religious grounds. Death threats are routinely handed down by the militants, who use illicit radio broadcasts to dictate Taliban-style social mores.
The cease-fire in the Swat Valley drew an indirect expression of concern from newly appointed U.S. regional envoy Richard Holbrooke, who is visiting India after stops in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Holbrooke called Islamic insurgents in Pakistan “an enemy that poses a direct threat to our leadership, our capitals and our people.” During his visit to Pakistan last week, he met with refugees from Swat, describing them as “frankly, quite terrified.”
Human rights groups expressed concern about the new pact Monday, saying it opened the door to even more violence and intimidation by militants in an area that is home to nearly 2 million people.
“The truce could legitimize the human rights abuses that have been taking place in the region as Taliban influence has increased,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
The fighting in Swat has been seen as a barometer of the Pakistani government’s determination to confront Islamic militants, because the area lies far from the Afghan border and is not part of the semiautonomous tribal belt, where militants have a well-established foothold.
Instead, it is part of Pakistan’s “settled areas,” where government authority is supposed to prevail.
The Swat cease-fire came against the backdrop of increased action by U.S. forces against the militants in Pakistan’s border areas. A suspected U.S. missile strike Monday, the second such raid in three days, killed as many as 30 people near the Afghan border, local officials said.
Pakistan has said it does not sanction the U.S. attacks against militant targets, which are carried out using pilotless drones. But the government’s public objections, which are in line with strong public sentiment against the attacks, run counter to a comment by a senior lawmaker in Washington last week that Pakistan allows one of its bases to be used to launch the drone missions.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said during an open hearing Thursday that it was her understanding that the pilotless craft take off from inside Pakistan. Pakistani officials distanced themselves from the statement, the first such public remark by a senior U.S. official.
Feinstein later distanced herself from the statement. Her spokesman said her comment was based on a previous news report, although she did not refer to newspaper accounts during the hearing.
Monday’s strike appeared to mark a widening of a campaign that has intensified in the last six months. The attack for the first time targeted the Kurram tribal agency, a previously quiet region that has recently seen stepped-up activity by insurgents.
The three missiles destroyed a home that local officials said was used by a Taliban commander.
Taliban fighters in Swat had said Sunday that they were beginning a temporary cease-fire in anticipation of Monday’s announcement that the government would allow Sharia in the Malakand region, which encompasses the valley. The chief minister for North-West Frontier Province, where the region is located, said Islamic law would be observed once fighting stopped.
The legal system in Swat, which was ruled by a dynasty of princes until 1969, already had provisions allowing Islamic clerics to advise judges in state-run courts. But followers of Fazlullah said those measures were rarely employed and did not go far enough.
Taking part in talks with the government was Maulana Sufi Mohammed, a onetime Taliban commander who is Fazlullah’s father-in-law. He previously sent fighters to Afghanistan to do battle with Western troops but agreed to renounce violence as part of a deal to win release from prison last year.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has sent mixed signals about his government’s policy toward Islamic militants. He has said that it is crucial to take on Taliban-style fighters, whom he blames for the assassination in December 2007 of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
But aides said the president had signed off on terms of the deal with the militants, provided the cease-fire holds.
Adding to a sense of growing chaos and instability, separatist rebels in the impoverished province of Baluchistan in southern Pakistan have threatened anew to kill a United Nations official abducted this month.
John Solecki, an American, was seized in Quetta, the provincial capital, amid new fears over a spate of kidnappings. After Solecki was kidnapped, a Taliban-linked faction said it had beheaded a Polish geologist who had been abducted several months earlier near Islamabad.
In announcing the pact with the Swat-area militants, a ranking official in North-West Frontier Province called it a means of stemming bloodshed through rapprochement rather than capitulation.
“Those who adopted militancy should move toward peace now,” Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the province’s chief minister, told a news conference in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest.
As a prelude to the cease-fire, militants in Swat released a Chinese engineer they abducted more than five months ago.
Pakistan’s central government sought to characterize the imposing of Sharia as a way to ease public anger over corrupt and inefficient local courts. It remains unclear, however, whether the new courts will adopt some of the practices seen in the tribal areas, where traditional punishments such as cutting off thieves’ hands are routinely meted out.
Ali is a special correspondent.