- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — The government agreed to implement Islamic law across a large swath of northwest Pakistan on Monday in a concession aimed at pacifying a spreading Taliban insurgency.

The decision was announced after talks with a pro-Taliban group from the Swat Valley, a one-time tourist haven in the northwest where extremists have gained sway through brutal tactics including beheadings and burning girls schools.

Officials gave few details on the what kind of Islamic or Shariah law they were planning to implement in Malakand region, which includes Swat, but said laws that do not comply with Islamic texts had been suspended effective from Monday.

“This was the peoples’ demand. There was a (legal) vacuum,” said Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti, saying the change would not violate the constitution — which stipulates a secular legal system — or human rights in the region.

Several past deals with militants in northwest Pakistan have failed, including one in Swat last year. The U.S. has warned such pacts simply give insurgents time to regroup, but the country’s civilian government insists force alone cannot defeat the extremists wreaking havoc in Pakistan and attacking U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

Also Monday, three missiles believed fired from a U.S. unmanned aircraft destroyed a house used by a local Taliban commander in the Kurram tribal region of the northwest, witnesses said. It was the first known such strike in Kurram. Most of the strikes have occurred in South and North Waziristan, other tribal regions considered major Taliban and al-Qaida strongholds.

Rehman Ullah, a resident of the targeted village of Baggan, said drones were seen in the sky before the attack and that he saw 30 bodies dug up. An intelligence official said field informants reported that militants showed up at the village bazaar and ordered 30 caskets. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

The United States has stepped up missile strikes in the border region since August, killing some suspected top militants. Pakistani officials routinely protest the strikes, saying they undercut the fight against terror when they kill civilians.

Regaining the Swat Valley from militants is a major test for the Pakistani government. Unlike the semiautonomous tribal regions where al-Qaida and Taliban have long thrived, the former tourist haven is supposed to be under full government control and lies less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the provincial capital, Islamabad.

A 30-member delegation from a banned pro-Taliban group in Swat took part in the discussions Monday in the provincial capital Peshawar.

The group, the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, has a long history of agitating for imposition of Islamic or Shariah law in the staunchly conservative region of the Muslim country. It is led by Sufi Muhammad, who Pakistan freed last year after he agreed to renounce violence.

Muhammad is father-in-law to Maulana Fazlullah, leader of the Taliban in Swat. Muhammad has pledged to visit Swat and persuade his son-in-law to stop the violence there.

Government officials have indicated they would focus on adjusting the area’s judicial system to include provisions such as letting religious scholars advise judges or having speedier courts. Many civilians in the region support an Islamic justice system, and some of the regulations under discussion have been on the books but never implemented.

Muslim scholars themselves have different interpretations of what it means to be under Shariah.

Many extremists in northwest Pakistan apparently favor the exceptionally strict brand the Taliban imposed in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion in 2001, where female education and music was banned. The Swat Taliban have declared a ban on girls’ education.

Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said Sunday that the militants would lay down their arms if Islamic law is actually imposed. He also announced a 10-day cease-fire as a positive gesture.

But provincial law minister Arshad Abdullah said the deal would require the militants to first give up violence.

“They have to succumb to law,” Abdullah said. “They have to put down their arms.”

President Asif Ali Zardari has been indirectly involved in the dialogue after growing increasingly concerned about civilian casualties in Swat, said an official in the president’s office who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Zardari has spoken for the need to forcefully combat extremists in Swat and elsewhere in the northwest.

Troops have been deployed to Swat, but residents and local officials say they seem powerless against the extremists, while many police no longer show up for work.

Overall security is deteriorating in Pakistan, and several foreigners have been attacked or abducted in recent months.

Also Monday, a spokesman for kidnappers holding American John Solecki captive in Pakistan said the deadline to negotiate for his release was extended for a “few days” after appeals from “some international organizations.” On Friday, the captors said they would kill Solecki, a United Nations official, in 72 hours if their demands were not met.

Solecki was abducted on Feb. 2 in Quetta, a major city in the southwest near the Afghan border. On Friday, his kidnappers threatened to kill him within 72 hours and issued a 20-second video of the blindfolded hostage.

Shahak Baluch, who claims to speak for the little-known Baluch United Liberation Front, announced the extended deadline in a call to the Quetta Press Club.

The group’s name indicates a link to separatists rather than Islamic extremists. Its demands include the release of 141 women allegedly held by Pakistani authorities, but Pakistan has denied it is holding the women.

The U.N. has been trying to establish contact with the kidnappers, officials said.

Associated Press Writer Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.

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