- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan freed a pro-Taliban cleric and quickly signed an accord with his hard-line group yesterday, the first major step by the new government to talk peace with Islamic militants and break with President Pervez Musharraf”s policy of using force.

The day’s developments began with the release of Sufi Muhammad, who is thought to be in his 70s, after more than five years in custody for dispatching thousands of followers to fight in Afghanistan.

A few hours later, the government of North West Frontier Province said Muhammad’s group signed a pact renouncing violence in return for being allowed to peacefully campaign for Islamic law. Security forces have the right to “act against” any extremists who attack the government.

Analysts cautioned that it will take time to judge the new approach, noting that Mr. Musharraf also struck truces with some groups that U.S. officials have complained gave Pakistani militants, as well as Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, a chance to accrue strength.

The anti-government sentiments in the region affected by yesterday’s deal are seen as less intractable than those held by Taliban sympathizers in the tribal regions of Waziristan, where U.S. officials suspect that Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders are hiding.

Provincial government spokesman Faridullah Khan said the pact covers the Swat Valley and neighboring districts in this area along the Afghan frontier.

It was not clear whether the deal was accepted by Muhammad’s son-in-law, Mualana Fazlullah, whose fighters seized control of the Swat Valley last year, prompting a bloody army offensive.

Fazlullah’s spokesman could not be reached for comment late yesterday. Fazlullah is reportedly at odds with Muhammad, and experts expressed doubts that the younger militant will change.

“I think Maulana Fazlullah will continue with whatever he is doing,” said Mehmood Shah, former security chief for Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst, said the deal with Muhammad demonstrates the new government’s willingness to try dialogue with militants and could increase pressure on Fazlullah and others to lay down their arms.

“But it’s a long way before you can make any judgment as to whether this is a success,” he said, citing the previous failed peace efforts with pro-Taliban militants.

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