- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The Taliban announced a 10-day cease-fire in Pakistan’s Swat Valley on Sunday after freeing a Chinese hostage as the government neared a peace deal with an insurgent-linked group.

Meanwhile, a captive American threatened with imminent death by his kidnappers remained missing.

Past peace deals with militants, including in Swat, have failed, and any agreement this time could respark U.S. criticism that the talks merely give insurgents time to regroup and rearm. Pakistan’s government, however, insists that it cannot rely on force alone to defeat al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in its regions bordering Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan called the release of Chinese engineer Long Xiaowei a good-will gesture as government officials and a group linked to the Swat insurgents said they had come to terms on introducing elements of Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas.

A formal announcement on an agreement was expected as early as Monday, revolving around some 22 points.

“In view of these developments, we announce a unilateral cease-fire for 10 days, but we reserve the right to retaliate if we are fired upon,” Mr. Khan told the Associated Press.

Regaining Swat, a former tourist haven, is a major test for Pakistan’s shaky civilian leaders. Unlike the semiautonomous tribal regions where al Qaeda and Taliban have long thrived, the valley is supposed to fall fully under government control.

Meanwhile, a string of attacks on foreigners — including the apparent beheading of a Polish geologist — have underscored the deteriorating overall security in the country.

On Friday, the kidnappers of American U.N. official John Solecki threatened to kill him within 72 hours and issued a 20-second video of the blindfolded captive saying he was “sick and in trouble.” U.N. officials said Sunday they were still trying to establish contact with the gunmen who seized Mr. Solecki on Feb. 2 in Quetta, a southwestern city near the Afghan border.

The kidnappers have identified themselves as members of the previously unknown Baluchistan Liberation United Front, indicating a link to separatists rather than to Islamists. The captors have demanded the release of 141 women allegedly held in Pakistan, but Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik has denied that the women are being held.

Baluchistan provincial government spokesman Syed Kamran said it was offering a $31,363 reward “for any information leading to the recovery of the kidnapped U.N. official.”

Earlier this month, Polish geologist Piotr Stanczak apparently was beheaded by Islamist militants in a video obtained earlier this month by news media and believed by the Polish government to be authentic. If confirmed, it would be the first killing of a Western hostage in Pakistan since American journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded in 2002.

Pakistani government officials could not be reached immediately for comment on the announced cease-fire, nor would any comment on whether a ransom was paid or militants were freed in exchange for the Chinese captive’s release Saturday.

Long’s freedom was secured days before a planned visit to China by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

He and fellow telecommunications engineer Zhang Guo were kidnapped in August in the Dir region of northwestern Pakistan. They both escaped in mid-October, but Long hurt his ankle and was recaptured, while Zhang got away, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said.

Mr. Long was in good condition Sunday and expected to return to China after a medical checkup, China’s Foreign Ministry said. Chinese officials gave no details on whether money was paid or militants freed for Mr. Long’s retrieval.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister for North West Frontier Province, confirmed that authorities were talking to members of the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammed, or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, on ways to implement on-the-books regulations allowing Islamic judicial practices in Swat and surrounding areas.

Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammed is led by Sufi Muhammad, whom Pakistan freed last year after he renounced violence.

Mr. Muhammad is the father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, leader of the Swat Taliban. His spokesman said Sunday that the Taliban would adhere to any deal reached with Mr. Muhammad.

“Once Islamic law is imposed, there will be no problems in Swat,” Mr. Khan said. “The Taliban will lay down their arms.”

The Pakistani government usually has tried to avoid negotiating directly with militants, for instance using tribal elders as intermediaries.

Although agreeing to an Islamic judicial system is a concession to the insurgents, many civilians in the region would likely welcome the move after years of dissatisfaction with the inefficient secular justice system. How exactly the government is willing to define Islamic law remains to be seen.

A broader peace deal last year with Fazlullah’s militants effectively collapsed within a few months, and Pakistani security officials blame that agreement for the militants’ gains in Swat since.

Mr. Hussain insisted that dialogue would move forward but warned that the government would resort to force if it had to.

Associated Press writers Henry Sanderson in Beijing, Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Habib Khan in Timar Garah contributed to this report.

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