Pakistani cleric holds peace talks with Taliban
MINGORA, Pakistan - A hard-line cleric sought yesterday to persuade the Taliban to disarm under a pact with Pakistan's government aimed at restoring peace after an 18-month campaign of terrorism and battles with the army.
The negotiations are a test of an agreement that has been much criticized as giving in to the demands of militants seeking to establish hard-line Islamic law and providing them a safe haven.
Islamic cleric Sufi Muhammad promised to use his influence to push the Taliban in the former mountain resort region of Swat to stop fighting in exchange for a public vow by the government to impose Islamic law in the region, where a brutal insurgency has killed hundreds and sent up to one-third of the area's 1.5 million people fleeing.
The Taliban announced a 10-day cease fire Sunday to support the initiative; the military responded by saying it would observe a truce.
In the last 18 months, militants have fought security forces, beheaded political opponents, and burned girls' schools in the Swat Valley, which lies near Pakistan's tribal regions - longtime Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds bordering Afghanistan.
The deteriorating situation in Swat has been especially worrisome to Pakistani officials because the valley lies away from the border areas where the Taliban have traditionally operated. The 3,500-square-mile region lies less than 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad.