Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pakistani Army Says Taliban Violated Peace Deal in Swat

The following is from Fox News:

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's military on Sunday accused the Taliban of "gross violation" of a peace accord covering a large segment of its northwest after several acts of violence over the weekend.

The allegations came as the northwest province's government said it was fulfilling its end of the deal by establishing an Islamic appellate court for the area, though a cleric mediating the pact rejected the panel.

The developments underscored the ambivalence in Pakistan's government over how best to tackle militancy in its regions bordering Afghanistan. It is a topic that will come up when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari meets with President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a visit to Washington later this week.

Under the peace deal struck in February, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas that make up the Malakand Division. The pact appeared to embolden the Taliban in Swat, who soon entered the adjacent Buner district.

Critics including the U.S. have cast the peace deal as a surrender. It is of particular concern to American officials, who worry Swat will turn into a haven for militants near Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO troops are battling an increasingly virulent insurgency.

Over the past week, the Pakistani military has gone on the offensive to push the Taliban out of Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad. An army statement Sunday said 80 militants had been killed so far along with three soldiers. An important local commander was believed to be among the dead militants, the statement said.

The dangerous nature of the area makes independent verification of the army statement near impossible.

Pushing the Taliban out of Buner does not mean the army is willing to try to oust them from their Swat Valley stronghold, even though its statement on Sunday took a harsh stance toward the weekend incidents in Swat.

The army accused militants of looting a bank and said security forces discovered at least three explosives-laden vehicles apparently intended for suicide attacks.

It blamed an attack on the power grid in the main Swat city of Mingora on the militants. It also said militants had partially blown up a bridge in the Khwaza Khela area of Swat.

Clashes between security forces and militants left at least one soldier dead and three soldiers and four militants wounded, it added.

Also Sunday, two decapitated bodies were found near Khwaza Khela, police officer Umer Rahim Khan said. They have not been identified.

A Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday.

Despite the strains on the cease-fire negotiated as part of the peace pact, the North West Frontier Province government insists it is not abandoning dialogue.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the province's information minister, said Saturday that the formation of the Islamic appellate court — the Darul Qaza — meant the government was close to fulfilling its obligations.

He said two judges have been appointed to the panel, with more to be named later.

Already a handful of judges trained in Islamic law, called qazis, have been hearing relatively routine disputes in Swat. Hussain said more such judges would be named throughout the rest of Malakand Division.

Pakistani officials insist that the deal has, at the very least, symbolic value. By carrying out their part of the agreement, they can gain more support from the public to take action against the Taliban if the militants violate the pact, they say.

A speedier justice system has long been a demand of local residents in Swat, where regular courts are corrupt and inefficient. It is a grievance Swat Taliban militants have exploited in their brutal campaign there.

The new appellate court takes away justification for militants to keep fighting, Hussain said. "Now anyone carrying arms would be treated as a rebel and would be prosecuted in the qazi courts," he said.

But the announcement did not satisfy a hard-line cleric who has mediated the deal, his spokesman said. Amir Izzat Khan said the cleric, Sufi Muhammad, was supposed to be consulted on the makeup of the appeals court but was not.

"We reject this Darul Qaza and further consultation is on to discuss the future line of action," Khan said.

A good deal still remained unclear about the appellate court, including when it would start functioning and whether its decisions could be reviewed by Pakistan's Supreme Court — an institution that Muhammad rejects.

Asked about the Supreme Court's role, Hussain, the provincial minister, said: "The people of Malakand need not to go to anywhere to seek justice after the whole system is established right there."

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