- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) - Taliban militants are setting up checkpoints in a district next to Pakistan’s Swat Valley, officials and witnesses said Wednesday, spurring fears that a government-backed peace deal imposing Islamic law in the area has emboldened the insurgents to expand their reign.

Reports that the top government official in another adjacent district was kidnapped by militants added to the growing concern.

Pakistan’s president signed off on the peace pact last week in hopes of calming Swat, where some two years worth of clashes between the Taliban and security forces have killed hundreds and displaced up to a third of the one-time tourist haven’s 1.5 million residents.

The agreement covers roughly one-third of Pakistan’s northwest frontier province, a strategic stretch that runs along the Afghan border and bumps into the tribal areas were al-Qaida and the Taliban have strongholds.

Supporters say the deal was the best way to bring peace, and that it also addresses longtime local grievances over the inefficient regular judicial system. Critics, including the White House, have slammed the deal as an affront to democracy and human rights, saying it gives Islamist insurgents a state-sanctioned sanctuary.

Critics also say Swat could be the first domino to fall _ that Islamabad, which is less than a hundred miles away, could follow along with other segments of the nuclear-armed country that neighbors Afghanistan.

Since the provincial government agreed to the deal in mid-February, Taliban fighters had adopted a lower profile and stopped openly displaying their weapons in the valley as part of a cease-fire. However, as of Tuesday, upon the radio-broadcast orders of Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah, the militants had begun roaming parts of the valley with their rifles and other weapons.

An Associated Press reporter saw the patrols in Mingora, the valley’s main city.

Residents from other nearby towns also told the AP that they had seen militants setting up their own checkpoints at various roads and strategic locations. The residents requested anonymity out of fear for their lives.

The Swat militants have also staged forays into adjoining Buner district in recent days, sparking at least one major clash with residents who tried to force them out.

Istiqbal Khan, a lawmaker from Buner, told the AP that the militants had entered the district in “large numbers” and started setting up checkpoints at main roads and strategic positions.

“They are patrolling in Buner, and local elders and clerics are negotiating with them to resolve this issue through talks,” he said. “They did a bad thing, but I don’t suggest any military operation against them. Let us give peace a chance to evict these Taliban from Buner. I am optimistic that it can be done.”

Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a recent interview with the AP, Khan said al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other militants aiming to oust the U.S. from Afghanistan would be welcome and protected in Swat _ a statement the government condemned.

The deal was mediated by Sufi Muhammad, a hardline cleric who has long demanded Islamic law be imposed in Swat and surrounding districts. Muhammad has urged the Taliban to lay down their weapons, but his spokesman tried to downplay the Taliban patrols.

“People need not worry,” Amir Izzat said Wednesday. “These Taliban only want that the process of enforcing Islamic laws in the region to be expedited.”

Meanwhile, authorities said that the top government official in Upper Dir, a rough-and-tumble district next to Swat, was missing.

Atif Rehman was believed to be returning home after visiting the village of Chakdara, where he met with local tribal elders, but lost contact with his staff late Tuesday, said Ghulam Mohammed, the top official in Lower Dir.

“We suspect he is in the custody of militants, along with his driver,” he said.

___

Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.

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