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Pak probes hardline cleric's Taliban ties

Pakistani authorities are investigating whether an Islamist cleric who brokered a failed peace deal with the Taliban in the Swat Valley inappropriately aided the militants, a senior government official said on Monday.

world Updated: Jul 27, 2009 17:15 IST

Pakistani authorities are investigating whether an Islamist cleric who brokered a failed peace deal with the Taliban in the Swat Valley inappropriately aided the militants, a senior government official said on Monday.

Sunday's arrest of Sufi Muhammad indicated the government won't try to strike another peace deal with Taliban fighters in the northwest valley, where the army has waged a three-month offensive.

Investigators may also be trying to pressure the aging cleric for information on the location of Swat Taliban commanders, including his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, the chief militant in the valley. Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister of North West Frontier Province, said the government hopes to bring formal charges against Muhammad soon.

"We don't even need any further evidence against him," Hoti told reporters in the main northwest city of Peshawar. "What he himself said publicly, that everybody knows. What he had said against constitution, the judiciary, the institutions. The contacts he has had with militants. The way he misled government. The way he facilitated militants. We will formally charge him on these things."

The government relied heavily on Muhammad's contacts with Taliban fighters in striking the February peace deal. But Hoti alleged that Muhammad had misled authorities during the negotiations. The pact imposed Islamic law in the valley in exchange for an end to two years of fighting, much to the chagrin of the US and other countries who warned the deal effectively ceded the valley to the Islamist militia and created a safe haven for insurgents. The agreement collapsed in April when the Taliban advanced south out of Swat, triggering the military offensive.

Some 2 million people fled the region, and although hundreds of thousands have returned in the past two weeks as the military operation winds down, sporadic fighting continues. Muhammad leads a banned pro-Taliban group known as the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammedi, or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law. He was jailed in 2002 but was freed last year after renouncing violence.

Muhammad himself does not control the armed militants in Swat. However, he mobilized thousands of volunteers to go fight in Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in 2001.

The Swat Taliban's ability to re-emerge will depend more on their leaders, including Fazlullah. The army says Fazlullah has been wounded, although the Taliban reportedly deny it. None of the commanders is definitively known to have been captured or killed.