(Feb 16) PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Pakistan agreed to suspend military offensives and impose Islamic law in part of the restive northwest, making a gesture it hopes will help calm the Taliban insurgency while rejecting Washington's call for tougher measures against militants.
A U.S. defense official called the deal "a negative development," and some Pakistani experts expressed skepticism the truce would decrease violence. One human rights activist said the accord was "a great surrender" to militants.
Elsewhere in the northwest, missiles fired by a suspected U.S. spy plane killed 30 people in a house used by an extremist commander, witnesses said. It was the deadliest of almost three dozen apparent American attacks on al-Qaida and Taliban targets in the semiautonomous tribal lands close to the Afghan border since last year.
The peace agreement applies to the Malakand region, which includes the former tourist destination of the Swat Valley, where extremists have gained sway by beheading people, burning girls’ schools and attacking security forces since a similar agreement broke down in August.
U.S. officials complained the earlier accord allowed militants to regroup and rearm and urged Pakistan's government to concentrate on military solutions to the insurgency in the rugged frontier region, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
The new agreement intensified that unease.
"It is hard to view this as anything other than a negative development," a senior Defense Department official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations with Pakistan and because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said later: "We have seen the press reports and are in touch with the government of Pakistan about the ongoing situation in Swat."
President Barack Obama's special envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, did not directly address Pakistan's peace effort in Malakand. But he said the rise of the Taliban in Swat was a reminder that the U.S., Pakistan and India face an "an enemy which poses direct threats to our leadership, our capitals and our people."
The government in northwestern Pakistan announced the deal after officials met with local Islamic leaders who have long demanded that Islamic, or Shariah, law be followed in this staunchly conservative corner of Pakistan.
Among the participants was a pro-Taliban cleric who authorities said would return to Swat and tell militants there to disarm, although there was no mention in the agreement of any need for extremists to give up their weapons.
Many analysts questioned whether the fighters would listen to the cleric and said they doubted the deal would stop violence. Critics asked why authorities were responding to the demands of a militant group that has waged a reign of terror.
"This is simply a great surrender, a surrender to a handful of forces who work through rough justice and brute force," said Athar Minallah, a lawyer and civil rights activist. "Who will be accountable for those hundreds of people who have been massacred in Swat? And they go and recognize these forces as a political force. This is pathetic.
The Swat Taliban, which had said Sunday it would observe a 10-day cease-fire in support of the government's initiative, welcomed the deal.
"Our whole struggle is for the enforcement of Shariah law," Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said. "If this really brings us the implementation of Shariah, we will fully cooperate with it."
Several war-weary residents interviewed in the Swat area welcomed the announcement.
"We just want to see an end to this bloody fighting," said Fazal Wadood, a teacher. "We do not mind what way it comes. It is no problem if it comes through the Islamic system."
Pakistan's shaky civilian government is 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.
Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister in North West Frontier Province, said troops in Swat would remain there but stop offensive operations and go on "reactive mode," retaliating only if attacked. He stressed they would not leave the valley until the militant threat was over.
A spokesman for the army said militants would have to live up to the truce deal.
"At the moment, the military has been asked to hold back and allow the peace initiative there," Maj. Gen Athar Abbas said. "But it is to be seen whether they (the militants) follow this cease-fire in true letter and spirit or take undue advantage of it."
Hoti said the main changes to the legal system promised by the accord already are included in existing laws stipulating Islamic justice. But he said they would be implemented only after peace was restored in the valley.
Hoti said the laws, which allow for Muslim clerics to advise judges when hearing cases and the setting up of an Islamic appeals court, would ensure a much speedier and fairer justice system than the current system, which dates back to British colonial times.
The rules do not ban female education or contain other strict interpretations of Shariah that have been demanded by many members of the Taliban in Pakistan — restrictions imposed by Afghanistan's Taliban regime that was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
The accord does not involve the tribally ruled regions adjacent to the Afghan border, where the United States has been targeting suspected militants with missile strikes fired from drones believed launched from neighboring Afghanistan.
The attack was the first in the Kurram area.
Rehman Ullah, a resident of Baggan village, said drone planes were seen in the sky before the attack on the house. He said he counted 30 bodies dug out of the rubble.
A Pakistani intelligence official said field informants reported militants showed up at the village bazaar and ordered 30 caskets. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
The Obama administration has signaled it will continue such attacks, which U.S. officials say have killed several top al-Qaida leaders. Pakistani leaders have voiced strong objections, saying the strikes undercut support for their own war against militants.
Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Nahal Toosi in Islamabad and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.