Pakistan dispatched a pro-Taliban cleric to talk peace with militants in the former tourist haven of Swat on Tuesday, a day after it agreed to a truce with the extremists and pledged to implement Islamic law in the region as part of a widely criticized deal.
A US defence official called the agreement “a negative development” and a Pakistani civil rights activist dubbed it a surrender to militants believed to control up to 80 per cent of the Swat Valley, which lies near the northwest tribal regions where Al Qaeda and Taliban have long had strongholds.
But several Swat residents welcomed the prospect of peace after more than a year of fighting that has killed hundreds, sent up to third of the valley’s 1.5 million people fleeing and ruined the tourist industry in a region less than 160 kilometres from the capital, Islamabad.
“May God protect this peace deal,” said Haji Javed, 40, a shop owner in Swat’s main town, Mingora. “We saw a lot of destruction during the fighting between the army and the Taliban. We are happy that they have agreed to give peace a chance.” The government in northwestern Pakistan announced the deal after it met with Islamists led by pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Muhammad who have long demanded that Islamic, or Shariah, law be followed in this conservative corner of Pakistan. As part of the deal, Muhammad agreed to travel to Swat and discuss peace with the militants there.
Muhammad was detained in 2002 after he sent thousands to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan but was freed last year when he renounced violence. He is the father-in-law to Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Swat Taliban.
Mohammed’s spokesman Izzat Khan said Tuesday he would meet with Fazlullah.
Pakistan’s shaky civilian government has been under intense domestic pressure to retake control of the Swat Valley, although many Islamist lawmakers and other Islamic groups have urged it to negotiate with the militants, who are believed to number around 2,000.
Some 10,000 paramilitary and army troops have been unable to beat the insurgency, which picked up after a similar deal there broke down last year, when many say militants were able to regroup and rearm.
“It is hard to view this as anything other than a negative development,” a senior U.S. Defense Department official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations with Pakistan and because he was not authorised to speak on the record.
Many analysts questioned whether the fighters would listen to Muhammad and said they doubted the deal would stop violence, while critics asked why authorities were responding to the demands of militants who have waged a reign of terror.