Cease-fire in Swat Valley

Cease-fire in Pakistan's Swat Valley
By RIAZ KHAN – Associated Press, May 9, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani authorities and pro-Taliban militants declared a cease-fire Friday in the volatile Swat Valley in the latest bid to curtail an explosion of violence along the Afghan border, officials said.

The cease-fire followed talks between representatives of the North West Frontier Province government and militant leader Maulana Fazlullah, whose armed followers grabbed control of much of the valley last year.

Pakistan's army responded with a military operation that drove militants to the mountains and left scores dead. It was a sign of the instability in Pakistan's northwestern frontier regions, where Islamic militants have challenged the government's authority.

Pakistan's civilian administration, elected in February, is seeking dialogue with Taliban sympathizers in a break from the more aggressive policy of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, who has mostly sought to tame extremists through military force.

"After hours of talks we have reached a cease-fire in entire Swat valley," provincial minister Wajid Ali Khan said after the talks in the northwestern town of Chakdara.

He said that more negotiations would follow to bring "peace and stability" in the province.

Muslim Abdur Rasheed, an aide of Fazlullah, confirmed the cease-fire would take effect on Saturday. He described Friday's first round of talks as a "confidence-building initiative."

He said the two sides have yet to discuss the militants' demands, which include the imposition of Islamic law in the valley, the withdrawal of the army, release of detainees and compensation for damage suffered by local people in the military operation.

Neither Rasheed nor Khan would say when the next round of talks would be held.

The cease-fire is the latest sign that Pakistan's new national government, led by the party of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, wants to use dialogue and development to curb militancy across the border region. The North West Frontier Province's government, which is led by a Pashtun nationalist party, has joined the effort.

Musharraf also tried striking truces with some groups — deals that U.S. officials complained gave Pakistani militants as well as Taliban and al-Qaida fighters a chance to build up strength.

Last month, Pakistan freed Fazlullah's father-in-law, Sufi Muhammad, from six years in custody in return for an agreement from his group to renounce violence.

Muhammad had sent thousands to battle the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. His group — Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammed, or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law — resurfaced under Fazlullah's leadership after his arrest in 2002, but Fazlullah has previously made clear he is not bound by the deal struck by Muhammad.

Fazlullah won a large following with firebrand preaching over an illegal FM radio station but alienated others by turning to violence, including suicide bombings in a once-tranquil region.

He had tapped into popular frustration over official corruption and failings in the justice system. His group wants a Taliban-like system, including compulsory beards for men, mandatory veils for women and the outlawing of music and television.

Since Pakistan's new civilian government took power from Musharraf's military regime, militant attacks have subsided somewhat, although there have been isolated bouts of violence.

On Thursday, suspected Islamic insurgents killed a soldier and wounded another near a checkpoint in Kabbal, a town in the Swat Valley. Also this week, militants set fire to two girls' schools in the valley.

The Swat Valley was once a leading tourist destination in Pakistan because of its mountain and riverine scenery.

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