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Strife threatens Pakistan peace

Taliban and army trade blame

By Nahal Toosi and Asif Shahzad
Associated Press / May 4, 2009
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ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's army and the Taliban blamed each other yesterday for a rise in tensions that threatened to destroy a much-criticized peace deal, just days before the Pakistani president heads to Washington for talks with President Obama.

The army accused militants in the Swat Valley of looting, attacking infrastructure, and killing a soldier. A Taliban spokesman said militants will start patrolling Swat's main town, and acknowledged that they cut the throats of two soldiers as revenge for the army killing two insurgents.

What happens to the peace pact is likely to figure prominently in talks between Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Obama later this week. Zardari is expected to ask for more money to help Pakistan's battered economy and under-equipped security forces.

Under February's peace deal, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the districts that make up the Malakand Division in hopes that the militants would lay down arms.

But the Taliban in Swat were emboldened, and soon entered the adjacent Buner district to impose their harsh brand of Islam.

Pakistan has insisted on using negotiations and force in tackling violent extremism within its borders. It's an approach that worries US officials, who warn that peace deals allow the insurgents time and room to strengthen.

Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters already have strongholds along Pakistan's border regions from which to plan attacks on US and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan, and American leaders don't want to see Swat turn into a sanctuary for them.

Yesterday, the Swat Taliban started patrolling Mingora, the valley's main town, in response to military patrols, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said.

"We are not violating the peace deal. This is government and security forces who are doing that. We have started armed patrols in response to security forces patrols. We will keep on doing that if they do, and we wouldn't if they don't. We have a right to defend ourselves," Khan said.

In recent weeks, the militants have moved into Buner, a district 60 miles from Islamabad. The proximity of the district to the capital raised alarms domestically and abroad, and Pakistan's military went on the offensive over the past week to drive the Taliban out.

An army statement yesterday said 80 militants including an important local commander had been killed, along with three soldiers. But the army's statement focused much more on Swat itself.

It accused militants there of looting a bank, attacking a power grid, and blowing up part of a bridge. It said security forces discovered at least three explosives-laden vehicles apparently intended for suicide attacks.

The militants were "in gross violation of the peace accord" and their actions threatened "the lives of the [civilian] population, civil administration as well as security forces personnel," the army statement said.

On top of that list, two security personnel were discovered with their throats slit and their bodies and faces mutilated yesterday in Swat, a security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media on the record.

The Taliban spokesman said the men were killed in revenge for the military's killing of two insurgents.

The government ordered a curfew for Swat from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., said Khushal Khan, an administrator who also confirmed the militant patrols. It was unclear what officials could do if the militants ignored the order.

The dangerous nature of Swat made it difficult to independently verify the army's accusations yesterday.

Even as the government and the militants hardened their positions, officials in Pakistan's northwest sought to keep the peace deal alive, insisting that the pact retains, at the very least, symbolic value.

Officials announced Saturday that they had set up an Islamic appeals court as their part of the deal. A speedier justice system has long been a demand of Swat residents, and setting up the court takes away a grievance that militants have exploited, officials say.

A cleric mediating the pact however rejected the panel.

By carrying out its part of the agreement, officials say, the government can gain more support from the public to take action against the Taliban if the militants violate the pact. Many Swat residents desperate for a stop to the fighting welcomed the deal, even if it didn't evict the Taliban.

Still, the army's harsh stance does not guarantee a return to fighting in Swat itself.