Monday, February 23, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Authorities in a Pakistani border province plan to arm villagers with 30,000 rifles and set up an elite police unit to protect a region increasingly besieged by Taliban and al Qaeda militants, an official said Sunday.

Stiffer action in the North West Frontier Province could help offset American concern that a peace deal being negotiated in the Swat valley, a Taliban stronghold in the province, could create a haven for Islamist insurgents only 100 miles from the Pakistani capital.

Village militias backed by the United States have been credited with reducing violence in Iraq. Washington is paying for a similar initiative in Afghanistan.

The United States is already spending millions of dollars to train and equip Pakistani forces in the rugged region near the Afghan border, but there was no sign that it was involved in the militia plan. A U.S. Embassy spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Saturday that he will try to “remove the apprehensions of the world community” about the Swat deal when he meets U.S. officials in Washington this week, state-run media reported.

But it was unclear whether Sunday’s announcement had the backing of national leaders or the powerful army — or whether handing out more guns in an already heavily armed society was wise.

Mahmood Shah, a former head of security for Pakistan’s tribal regions, said arming civilians could trigger civil war in the northwest, where tribal and political tension is at fever pitch.

Mr. Shah said authorities should focus on bolstering existing security forces.

“This is Pakistan, not Iraq or Afghanistan. There is complete anarchy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is not the case here,” he said. “It is not going to help.”

Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister of the provincial government, said authorities would distribute the guns only among “peaceful groups and individuals” so they could help police to guard their villages.

Officials would consult with local police chiefs before handing out the arms and would take them back if they were not used against “terrorists and troublemakers,” Mr. Hoti’s office said in a written statement.

Mr. Hoti said the guns had been seized from “terrorists and anti-state elements.” He said the province would meet the $40 million bill for the elite provincial police unit of 2,500 officers.

“The purpose of setting up this force is to combat terrorism and extremism effectively,” he said.

The militia plan raises doubts about the coherence of Pakistani efforts to counter Taliban groups that have seized growing pockets of the northwest, forged links with al Qaeda and carried out a blur of suicide bombings.

Pakistani officials have encouraged residents to establish militias in the semiautonomous tribal areas along the province’s border with Afghanistan.

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