NW Pakistan Clashes Intensify; Peace Deals at Risk, Taliban Says

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 31, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 30 -- Clashes between insurgents and Pakistani troops escalated Wednesday in the country's fractious northwest as Taliban leaders threatened to withdraw their support for peace deals brokered this year with Pakistan's new government.

Accounts of casualties from the skirmishes in Pakistan's Swat Valley, near the Afghan border, varied widely and could not be independently verified. A local military spokesman said that five Pakistani soldiers and at least 38 insurgents were killed, but a spokesman for a pro-Taliban group disputed that tally, saying that only three of its fighters had been slain.

It was the third consecutive day of violence between pro-Taliban extremists and government troops in the formerly serene Swat Valley. After skirmishes erupted near the town of Matta, Pakistani security forces began enforcing a 24-hour curfew in the area, a military spokesman said.

Muslim Khan, a top spokesman for insurgent leader Maulana Fazlullah, said fighters from their group -- the Movement for Enforcement of Islamic Law -- had killed several Pakistani soldiers in the latest clashes, but he declined to give specific numbers.

The group was founded by Sufi Mohammad, Fazlullah's father-in-law. Pakistani authorities arrested Mohammad in 2001 after he incited thousands of young men to cross the border to fight U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. In April, Mohammad was released from prison as part of a peace deal brokered with his group by members of the secular Awami National Party, one of three leading parties in Pakistan's newly elected coalition government. Conditions of his release included a promise that the group would abandon propaganda and radical radio broadcasts and cooperate with government agencies in the region, party officials said.

But Fazlullah, nicknamed "Radio Mullah" for his fiery religious pirate radio broadcasts, has consistently flouted the terms of the deal. Last month, he asserted responsibility for burning down a ski resort in Malam Jabba in Swat Valley.

Taliban influence in Pakistan has widened considerably since the country held its parliamentary elections Feb. 18. Dozens of shops in Pakistan's tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province have been shuttered or destroyed, and several girls' schools have been closed amid threats from various extremist elements, many of them loyal or sympathetic to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

In another sign of the increasing boldness of pro-Taliban forces, extremists have also recently executed several people accused of spying on behalf of the United States in the country's remote tribal areas. On Wednesday, residents in the village of Degan in the tribal area of North Waziristan said extremists had executed an Afghan woman for allegedly assisting U.S.-led NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. Noor Zada, a Degan resident, said he saw the body of Gulzada Bibi after it was discovered in a sewer in the village, which is about 22 miles west of the area's main town of Miran Shah. A note pinned to her body said the woman, who was in her 30s, had used a satellite phone given to her by U.S. forces to communicate information, Zada said.

The mounting violence has raised questions about whether peace deals brokered by Pakistan's new coalition government can hold up much longer. Pakistani Taliban officials have repeatedly threatened to rescind their support for the deals. But the country's political leaders appear to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, saying little publicly in response to the threats while generally acquiescing to Taliban insurgents' demands.

Pakistani defense and political analysts say Taliban threats to withdraw from the deals could spell imminent trouble for the country at large. Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, a nonpartisan research organization based in Islamabad, said the peace deals were flawed from the outset.

"The time has passed for peace settlements. When the new government first came to power, that would have been the time to really pursue peace deals. And the first condition should have been that they will never allow the Taliban to challenge the government writ," Rana said. "The best course now is to take precautions against suicide bombings in Islamabad, Karachi and other cities."

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this reported.

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