Sunday, May 3, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | The provincial government in Pakistan’s northwest announced the establishment of an Islamic court Saturday, meeting the main demand of the Taliban, and pressed the militants to give up arms in response.

The announcement comes as the Pakistani military has been fighting to evict the Taliban from a district near the federal capital, forcing thousands of residents to flee.

“With the establishment of Darul Qaza [appellate court], the foremost demand of all sides has been met. … There is no justification for Taliban to be up in arms,” Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), told reporters in Peshawar on Saturday, a day after a meeting with a hard-line cleric mediating the peace talks with the Taliban.

“From now onwards anyone found having arms, including Taliban, would be considered as rebel and even holding of their funeral would be un-Islamic,” Mr. Hussain said.

A spokesman for the Taliban mediators, however, said the groups were not consulted on the choice of judges of the new court.

The regional government earlier this year entered a deal with the Taliban to allow the use of Islamic Shariah law in the Malakand region if the militants gave up arms. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari approved the agreement in February.

Officials from Awami National Party, which leads the coalition government in the province, held negotiations with Sufi Muhammad on Friday on the form of the Islamic court to be created under the deal. They hope a solution will help restore peace to the Swat Valley - a former resort area that serves as the base of the Pakistani Taliban - and surrounding districts of Buner, Shangla and Lower Dir.

Mr. Muhammad is the father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, the local head of the main grouping of the Taliban in the country.

Two weeks ago, Taliban fighters from the Swat Valley took control of Buner district, 60 miles northwest of the capital, Islamabad, causing alarm in Washington.

After the talks in the northwestern town of Timergara on Friday Mr. Muhammad said the Taliban would stop fighting if its version of Islam carries the day.

“If the government enforces [Islamic law] in its true letter and spirit, I guarantee that the Taliban will lay down their arms and help restore peace in this region,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Spokesman for the Taliban in the Swat Valley, Muslim Khan, however, said militants would not give up arms but would only stop using them.

“Possessing arms is completely permitted by Islam while Pakhtoon traditions also call for keeping weapons,” he said Saturday.

The new round of talks and concessions to the Taliban have renewed concerns that the Pakistani government is not capable of dealing with a threat that has brought militants closer to the capital.

“There is no reason for the NWFP government to negotiate with insurgents in Swat. They have to be eliminated once and for all,” said Sarfaraz Khan, director of Area Study Center for Afghanistan, China, Russia and Central Asia at the University of Peshawar.

NWFP officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said these tactics have increased the Taliban’s ability to erode state authority in several districts and to press its advance toward Islamabad and Peshawar.

In an interview with CNN expected to air Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the Taliban’s expanding reach in the northwest of Pakistan posed an “existential threat to the democratic government in Pakistan.”

Mr. Gates said the United States was willing to provide all the training and equipment Pakistan’s military needed to help combat the growing threat.

President Obama will host the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday at the White House in a “trilateral dialogue,” which his administration hopes will help bring stability to the region.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday that Mr. Obama will follow the meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Mr. Zardari with a separate discussion with each.

The new peace talks came as the Pakistani government continued an offensive against the Taliban in Lower Dir and Buner.

For the fifth consecutive day, security forces battled for control of Buner on Saturday. The security forces have taken control of the district’s main town of Daggar, but militants still control parts of the valley. On Saturday, the military said its forces had secured a major road leading to Daggar, Reuters news agency reported.

Residents of the districts reached by telephone said thousands of people were fleeing the area. Military officials say about 250 militants and 12 soldiers have been killed since Tuesday.

Also Saturday, Pakistani forces repelled a mass assault on their outpost near the Afghan border in a battle that left 18 dead, the Associated Press reported. According to the army, about 100 insurgents took part in the attack on the Spinal Tangi security post in Mohmand tribal region.

In the Khyber tribal region, a Taliban commander wanted for attacks on convoys carrying supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan surrendered to authorities, news agencies reported, citing local officials.

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