Renewed Fighting Tests Pakistan Peace Pact
April 27, 2009
(RFE/RL) -- Sufi Mohammad was a key figure in the peace-deal negotiations with the provincial government that brought Shari'a law to Pakistan's Swat Valley and mountainous Malakand region in exchange for a Taliban cease-fire.
Now, after the Pakistani government reportedly killed 30 militants in military operations carried out on April 26, Mohammad is trapped in Malakand's Lower Dir district, and the Taliban is saying that the controversial peace deal is "worthless."
Mohammad's Movement for the Implementation of Shari'a, which was expected to use its leverage with the Taliban in delivering peace to the government, will suspend its role in negotiations until Mohammad makes it safely out of Dir, according to spokesman Amir Ezzat Khan.
The Pakistani military reportedly acted in response to a request from locals and provincial officials, after militants were blamed for rigging a soccer ball with a bomb that killed 16 children when they began playing with it.
In a statement on April 26, the Pakistani military claimed that the "people of Dir have taken a sigh of relief and are extremely jubilant" as a result of the action.
The statement claimed that a senior Taliban commander was among the 30 killed in the operation to wrest control of the village of Lal Qala, in lower Dir, from Taliban control.
The hard-line Taliban view the fresh military offensive as a violation of the peace deal, and a threat to their efforts to establish control over the neighboring regions of Dir and Buner in Malakand, while using their Swat Valley stronghold as a base.
Reports suggest that some Taliban leaders are calling for retaliation against the military.
Afzal Khan Lala, an anti-Taliban Pashtun nationalist leader in Swat, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the renewed fighting is the result of Taliban reluctance to stick to the terms of the February peace agreement that granted their main demand of establishing Shari'a courts in the region.
"Every resident of this region is deeply worried about fighting here because the blood being spilled here is mostly of locals here -- of the men, women, and children," Lala says.
Lala adds that it "would have been better" if the Taliban "would have demonstrated patience." "Now the question is who is going to establish authority here, as it is part of Pakistan -- and if it's a question of establishing authority, Pakistan cannot leave its territory to others."
In an interview on April 26 in Islamabad, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas tried to quell growing concerns over a possible Taliban takeover.
"You know that there is a near insurgency going on in the northwest of Pakistan, but in some areas or due to some actions, it has also been blown out of proportion," Abbas said. "And the state is quite capable of handling this threat."
He rejected as "a false alarm" recent media reports suggesting that the Swat Taliban were now threatening Pakistan's capital Islamabad and other major urban areas by moving out of their Swat stronghold. "One-hundred and fifty, or 200 militants at 70, 80, 90 kilometers from the capital do not pose a threat to the capital," Abbas said.
But war-weary locals remain extremely concerned. Nousherwan, a resident of Buner, opposes military force in his district because he saw too many civilians being killed in neighboring Swat over the past two years of unrest.
"Whenever the police or the paramilitary forces bomb some place, innocent people are killed," he says. "The bad people are never killed."
Limited Pakistani military operations against the Taliban, however, are unlikely to placate Washington's growing concerns. The Obama administration has been urging Islamabad to view the Taliban as a primary threat to its national security.
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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