Mingora, Pakistan, March 2 – A radical Muslim cleric, acting as a peacemaker in Pakistan’s Swat valley, threatened on Sunday to launch a protest unless the government and the Taliban release their prisoners.
Taliban militants announced a ceasefire and Pakistani forces halted military operations in Swat last month after the cleric, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, struck a pact with the government of North West Frontier Province to enforce Islamic law in the valley.
Critics in the West and Pakistan fear that by agreeing to introduce Islamic law, or sharia, in Swat the government has risked encouraging the Islamist militants by adopting policies of appeasement.
Mohammad set a March 10 deadline for the government and the Taliban to free each other’s prisoners, but also set another for the government to make good its commitment to implement Islamic law if peace was restored.
“We also asked the government to implement Nifaz-e-Adl (a system of Islamic justice) by March 15 after which we will launch a protest,” Mohammad told a news conference in Mingora, the main town in the valley.
Mohammad had last month appealed for the security forces and militants to release prisoners, remove barricades on the roads, and for the troops deployed in schools, houses, mosques and hospitals to be shifted to “safer places”.
But he expressed his dismay over what he called inaction by the government, and for dragging its feet over the enforcement of sharia in Swat, a former tourist haven in the mountains just 130 km (90 miles) north of the capital, Islamabad.
The government, if it does keep its promise, is likely to use a fairly soft interpretation of the sharia, and no special courts are being set up or new judges appointed.
On Saturday, Mohammad’s son-in-law, Fazlullah, who leads the Taliban in Swat, said on illegal FM radio that the government’s reluctance to release captured fighters was harmful to peace efforts. Militants had released seven men after the agreement.
Mohammad, who spent six years in jail for leading thousands of fighters to Afghanistan in a vain bid to help the Taliban repel U.S.-backed forces in 2001, was freed last year in the hope he would prevail over Fazlullah to shun violence.
Between 250,000 and 500,000 people have fled Swat since Fazlullah launched a campaign of violence in late 2007. At least 1,200 civilians have been killed.
Some people doubt whether Mohammad can rein in Fazlullah for long because the younger man is believed to have fallen under the influence of other Taliban factions and al Qaeda.
Fazlullah’s fighters have torched nearly 200 girls’ schools in a campaign against female education, and they have conducted public executions, including beheading people, as they enforced their own brand of the sharia in Swat.
Apart from Swat, Pakistan troops have been fighting militants on several fronts in the semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun tribal areas, well-known sanctuaries for al Qaeda and the Taliban.
A Pakistani military commander said on Saturday his troops had flushed out militants from Bajaur, the smallest of the seven tribal regions and a major infiltration route into Afghanistan.