Taliban extended cease-fire in Pakistan's Swat valley

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The Independent Online

Taliban militants in Pakistan's Swat valley extended a cease-fire today, strengthening a peace process that Western governments say risks granting a safe haven to extremists close to the Afghan border.

Nevertheless, it remained unclear whether the militants would agree to a government offer to impose a version of Islamic law in the northwestern region in exchange for giving up their weapons.Islamabad has dispatched an Islamist cleric with ties to the insurgency to negotiate with militants in the valley, though neither side has given many details on how the talks are going or when a formal agreement is expected.

Troops and insurgents have observed a truce in Swat since 15 February when Islamabad initiated the peace process.

Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the cease-fire had been extended "for an indefinite period" and that he expected the military to also abide by the truce.

Late Tuesday, militant commander Maulana Fazlullah told his fighters about the truce in a broadcast over an FM frequency.

"We will make this pact a success to bring peace. I want to ask all of our men not to display weapons, not to attack army vehicles and not to attack their supply lines," he said. "Anybody who violates these orders should expect a strict action."

The military has been abiding by the truce but has said it will not withdraw from the valley until there is lasting peace. The military did not immediately comment on the Taliban's announcement today.

Swat has been wracked by an increasingly widespread insurgency since mid-2007 despite the presence of some 12,000 soldiers. The militants have killed secular politicians and critics, bombed girls schools and enforced their own hardline version of Islamic law.

The Islamic justice system offered last week by the government is restricted to changes in the region's court system and contains no provisions for the harsh measures espoused by the Taliban. Given that and the militants' position of strength in the valley, analysts have questioned the incentive for them to sign up.

The Taliban have not clearly stated whether they will fully disarm, allow girls to attend school or whether they will demand a military withdrawal - all crucial issues that could break any agreement.Pakistani officials say the offer to introduce Islamic law addresses long-standing anger in the region over its slow and corrupt justice system that has been used by the Taliban as a rallying cry. Some analysts believe the peace initiative may be an attempt to weaken the insurgency by co-opting its more moderate members.

Still, NATO and the United States have voiced concern that any peace accord could effectively cede the Swat valley to the extremists. Other peace deals in Swat and elsewhere in the northwest in recent years were used by the militants to regroup and rearm before breaking down.

Many secular Pakistanis see the initiative as a surrender to militants behind a reign of terror, and they fear it could embolden other hard-line groups seeking to implement Islamic law in the secular country.

Elsewhere in the northwest, the military said it had given militants in the Bajur region four days to surrender after they announced a unilateral cease-fire Monday. Unlike in Swat, the Taliban in Bajur had been losing ground to an offensive by the military, which has several times claimed to be close to victory.

"The militants in the area are under great pressure and are suing for peace," said military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.

The military began its offensive against militants in Bajur in September last year and claims to have killed around 1,500 Taliban fighters. The United States has praised the offensive and said it has stemmed the flow of fighters in Afghanistan.

Sherin Zada in Mingora and Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.