As Part of Peace Deal, Possible Islamic Law in Pakistani Valley
Monday, February 16, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 15 -- Pakistani officials on Sunday hammered out a peace deal with a Taliban-linked group that could lead to the enforcement of elements of Islamic law in parts of Pakistan's northwest, prompting insurgents in the Swat Valley to declare a 10-day cease-fire as a goodwill gesture.
The agreement, expected to be formally announced Monday, could revive U.S. criticism that Pakistan's truces with insurgents merely give them time to regroup. But although several of its past deals have failed, Pakistan says that force alone cannot defeat al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters sowing havoc in its northwest and attacking U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
Swat is a scenic former tourist haven that has fallen under the insurgents' sway despite a lengthy army offensive. Regaining Swat is considered a major test for Pakistan's shaky civilian leadership. Unlike the semiautonomous tribal regions where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have long thrived, the valley is supposed to be fully under government control.
Provincial government leaders confirmed they were talking to a pro-Taliban group about ways to impose Islamic judicial practices in the Malakand division, which includes Swat. Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the insurgents would adhere to any deal reached with the group if Islamic law was actually implemented in the region.
Khan also announced the release of a Chinese engineer held captive since August. Long Xiaowei was freed Saturday, days before a planned visit to China by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
In announcing the 10-day cease-fire, Khan said, "We reserve the right to retaliate if we are fired upon," but he added: "Once Islamic law is imposed there will be no problems in Swat. The Taliban will lay down their arms."
But Arshad Abdullah, the provincial law minister, said the agreement would require the pro-Taliban group to persuade the insurgents to first give up violence. "Our agreement is conditioned on peace," Abdullah said.
The agreement was reminiscent of past deals that required insurgents to stop fighting but that eventually unraveled.
It also remains to be seen exactly how the government is willing to define Islamic law. A similar deal reached last year was supposed to let religious scholars advise judges in the courts, but it foundered in practice.
The Swat Taliban's version of Islamic law is especially harsh, banning female education, forcing women mostly indoors and forbidding many forms of entertainment.
Also Sunday, U.N. officials said they were still trying to establish contact with the kidnappers of one of their American employees, who was seized Feb. 2 in the southwestern city of Quetta. On Friday, the previously unknown Baluchistan Liberation United Front threatened to kill John Solecki within 72 hours and issued a 20-second video of the blindfolded captive.
The group's name indicates it is probably linked to separatists rather than Islamists.