Pakistan says truce reached with Taliban
Extension may calm swath of northwest region
MINGORA, Pakistan - Pakistan has agreed to an open-ended cease-fire with Taliban militants in the Swat Valley, government officials said yesterday, 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 militants 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 Taliban militants have established strongholds. Past peace deals have collapsed, including one last year with militants in Swat that security officials said simply allowed the insurgents to regroup.
Also, a roadside bomb killed one person elsewhere in Pakistan's chaotic northwest along a supply route that is used heavily by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the mother of an American kidnapped in southwestern Pakistan issued the family's first public appeal for his release. Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley have beheaded opponents, torched girls schools and terrorized the 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.
In a talks with a hard-line, Taliban-linked cleric, the government agreed Monday to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas if the extremists stop fighting. It also suspended the military offensive, though it did not pull out troops. The cleric, Sufi Muhammad, was dispatched to persuade the militants to agree to peace.
Yesterday, 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 cease-fire but said 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.
Fazlullah said the Taliban still had to discuss the deal. "We will consult again after the 10-day cease-fire," he said in a radio address. "We will also observe a permanent cease-fire if the government takes practical steps."
Though he did not specify what those steps should be, Fazlullah urged Pakistan to enforce Islamic law in the area and create "an environment of confidence."
The United States, NATO, and Britain - as well as rights activists - have voiced concerns about the talks, with NATO warning it could create a safe haven for Islamist extremists. Pakistan has deflected the criticism, saying it was merely responding to longstanding local demands for a more efficient justice system.