Pakistan Agrees to Taliban Truce

By Sherin Zada
Associated Press
Sunday, February 22, 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan, Feb. 21 -- Pakistan has agreed to an open-ended cease-fire with Taliban insurgents in the Swat Valley, government officials said Saturday, extending a truce as the country pursues broader, much-criticized talks aimed at calming a large swath of its northwestern region bordering Afghanistan.

The Taliban leader in Swat, however, said the fighters would decide on whether to halt fighting for good only after a 10-day cease-fire announced last Sunday expires -- and that decision hinged on the government taking unspecified "practical steps."

The twists underscored the fragile nature of peace talks in Pakistan's northwest, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have established strongholds. Past peace deals have collapsed, including one last year with extremists in Swat that security officials said simply allowed the insurgents to regroup.

Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley have beheaded opponents, torched girls' schools and terrorized police to gain control of much of the onetime tourist haven, despite a lengthy military offensive. Hundreds have been killed and up to a third of the valley's 1.5 million residents have fled, making the government increasingly desperate to pacify the area.

In talks with a hard-line, Taliban-linked cleric, the government agreed Monday to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas if the extremists stopped fighting. It also suspended the military offensive, though it did not pull out its troops. The cleric, Sufi Muhammad, was dispatched to persuade the radicals to agree to peace.

On Saturday, senior regional official Syed Muhammad Javed told reporters in Swat: "The government and the Taliban fighters have decided to observe a permanent cease-fire. The Taliban has agreed to it, and so do we."

Area government official Shaukat Yousufzai confirmed that both sides agreed to extend the truce but said the talks between Muhammad's group and representatives of Swat Valley Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah -- Muhammad's son-in-law -- would proceed.

"Our representatives have listened to them, and they will listen to them if there is anything more they want to convey," he said.

The United States, NATO and Britain -- as well as human rights activists -- have voiced concerns about the talks, with NATO warning they could create a haven for Islamist extremists. Pakistani officials have deflected the criticism, saying they were merely responding to long-standing local demands for a more efficient justice system.

Meanwhile, the mother of an American kidnapped in southwestern Pakistan issued the family's first public appeal for his release.

United Nations official John Solecki was taken captive Feb. 2 in the southwestern city of Quetta in Baluchistan province, and his kidnappers have threatened to kill him.

His mother, Rose Solecki, asked the people of Baluchistan for help in securing her son's freedom.

"I cannot begin to explain the sorrows and pain that I am going through right now," she said in an audio message released through the United Nations. "My husband and I are old. We want to be with John again."

Solecki's kidnappers have identified themselves as the previously unknown Baluchistan Liberation United Front, indicating they are linked with separatists, not Islamists.

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