- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan | NATO warned Tuesday that Pakistan risked creating a safe haven for Islamic extremists after it struck a deal to impose Islamic law and suspend a military offensive in the former tourist haven of Swat Valley.

Criticism of the truce mounted as a hard-line cleric, dispatched by the government to convince the Taliban to stop fighting as part of the deal, arrived in the Swat Valley’s main city of Mingora to a hero’s welcome.

NATO says it has 55,000 troops across the border in Afghanistan, and many of them have come under attack by Taliban and al Qaeda fighters believed to have sought refuge in pockets of Pakistan’s northwest.

“It is certainly reason for concern,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels about the latest deal. “We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven. Without doubting the good faith of the Pakistani government, it is clear that the region is suffering very badly from extremists, and we would not want it to get worse.”

Britain also weighed in with reservations.

“Previous peace deals have not provided a comprehensive and long-term solution to Swat’s problems,” said a statement from the British High Commission in Islamabad. “We need to be confident that they will end violence - not create space for further violence.”

In Japan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Pakistani move still needed to be “thoroughly understood.”

She was on her first visit to Asia since taking up her post. A senior U.S. defense department official described the deal as a “negative development.”

In Swat, the cleric, Sufi Muhammad, said he was hopeful the Taliban would cooperate with the agreement.

“We will soon open dialogue with the Taliban. We will ask them to lay down their weapons. We are hopeful that they will not let us down,” Mr. Muhammad told reporters. “We will stay here in the valley until peace is restored.”

Residents lined the route as his caravan of 300 people drove through, waving and shouting “Long live peace! Long live Islam!”

Extremists in Swat have beheaded opponents and torched scores of girls schools in recent months, while gunbattles between security forces and militants have killed hundreds. Up to a third of the valley’s 1.5 million people have fled, and the scenic area is now believed to be mostly under militant control.

The provincial government in northwest Pakistan announced the deal Monday after it met with Islamists led by Mr. Muhammad, who has long demanded that Islamic, or Shariah, law be followed in this conservative corner of Pakistan. As part of the deal, Mr. Muhammad agreed to travel to Swat and discuss peace with Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Swat Taliban and Mr. Muhammad’s son-in-law.

Mr. Muhammad was detained in 2002 after he sent thousands to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but Pakistan freed him last year after he agreed to renounce violence. It is not clear how much influence he has over Mr. Fazlullah or exactly where they would meet, though a spokesman for the Swat Taliban leader welcomed Mr. Muhammad and has spoken positively of the truce.

The Swat Taliban said Sunday they would observe an initial 10-day cease-fire in a show of good faith.

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