Saturday, August 15, 2009

ISLAMABAD | Pakistan lifted a ban on political activities in its tribal regions Friday, granting the areas close to the Afghan border parliamentary representation for the first time in the hopes it would reduce the Taliban’s grip on the region.

Pakistan’s seven semiautonomous agencies have never been politically and administratively integrated into the rest of the country - a vacuum that observers say has allowed lawlessness and an al Qaeda- and Taliban-led militancy to thrive there.

“This breaks the monopoly of clerics to play politics from the pulpit of the mosque to the exclusion of major secular political parties,” said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari. “It empowers the locals and weakens the extremists.”

Since the days of British colonial rule, the region’s 4 million people have been ruled by government-appointed agents in concert with tribal leaders. They are subject to tribal laws that allow for detention without trial and communal punishment among other unpopular measures.

Mr. Babar said Friday’s announcement did not reduce the powers of the political agent or modify the laws, but would mean that political parties could campaign there and represent the region in the national parliament after the next elections in 2013.

Since 2001, the border region has become a haven for militants behind surging violence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Western officials have called on Islamabad to integrate it with the rest of the nuclear-armed country as a means of reducing militancy.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Rehman Malik appealed to the militants to surrender to the government, urging them to “say goodbye to terrorism and start a new life” in televised comments to the media.

The call could be a sign the government is seeking to exploit any potential weaknesses in the militant movement since Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was reportedly killed in a CIA missile strike on Aug. 5. U.S. and Pakistani officials think he is dead, though his followers contend he is still alive.

Pakistani officials have called on the militants to surrender before, but with little success.

U.S. and Western officials have said reaching out to moderate Taliban will likely be a major part of any solution to the raging insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, but they have been concentrating on urging Pakistan to fight the extremists, not talk with them.

Pakistan launched an operation against militants in the Swat Valley earlier this year after they violated the terms of a peace deal. It claims to have killed more than 1,200 extremists there and brought the region under government control.

Separately, three bombs killed one man and wounded another 18 people Friday in the impoverished but oil-rich province of Baluchistan, where Baluch nationalist groups have been fighting a separate low-level insurgency for decades.

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