Image: Islamic militants arrive in the Swat Valley in Pakistan
Rashid Iqbal  /  EPA
A convoy of the supporters and representatives of Islamic militants arrive in Pakistan's volatile Swat valley on Tuesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/17/2009 9:21:58 AM ET 2009-02-17T14:21:58

Battle-weary residents welcomed a pro-Taliban cleric dispatched by the government Tuesday to convince militants in the former tourist haven of Swat to stop fighting in exchange for the imposition of Islamic law and suspension of military offensives there.

Sufi Muhammad arrived in a caravan of some 300 vehicles in Swat Valley's main city of Mingora a day after he struck the truce, which a U.S. defense official called "negative" and critics said represented a surrender to extremists fanning out from nearby strongholds close to the Afghan border.

NATO also expressed dismay. "We would all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have safe haven," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said at a news briefing. "It is certainly reason for concern."

"We will soon open dialogue with Taliban. We will ask them to lay down their weapons. We are hopeful that they will not let us down," Muhammad told reporters. "We will stay here in the valley until peace is restored."

Residents lined the route, waving and shouting "Long live peace! Long live Islam!"

Extremists in Swat have beheaded opponents and torched scores of girls schools in recent months, while gunbattles between security forces and militants have killed hundreds. Up to a third of the valley's 1.5 million people have fled and the scenic area is now believed to be mostly under militant control.

The provincial government in northwest Pakistan announced the deal Monday after it met with Islamists led by Muhammad, who has 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 Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Swat Taliban and Muhammad's son-in-law.

10-day cease-fire
Muhammad was detained in 2002 after he sent thousands to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but Pakistan freed him last year after he agreed to renounce violence. It is unclear how much influence he has over Fazlullah or exactly where they would meet, though a spokesman for the Swat Taliban leader welcomed Muhammad and has spoken positively of the truce.

The Swat Taliban said Sunday they would observe an initial 10-day cease-fire in a show of good faith.

Pakistan's inability to re-establish its authority in Swat has embarrassed the shaky civilian government and the military. However, Pakistani leaders insisted the deal was not a concession, but an attempt to fulfill demands by locals for a more efficient justice system and forge peace.

"Those who want to live in a peaceful world will take steps like ours, and those who want to live in a violent world will take opposite steps," Northwest Frontier Province Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said in defense of the agreement. "The need of the hour is to put water on fire, not to fuel it."

Some 2,000 militants are believed to operate in the valley, and, in defiance of the presence of some 10,000 paramilitary and army troops, they have already set up their own courts, meting out punishments in line with an exceptionally harsh brand of Islamic law.

Many doubts
Many analysts questioned whether the fighters would listen to Muhammad and said they doubted the deal would stop violence. Similar deals struck in the past have failed, including one last year in Swat that security officials said the insurgents used to regroup and re-arm.

Video: On the hunt in Pakistan A senior U.S. Defense Department official, said "it is hard to view this as anything other than a negative development." He requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations with Pakistan and because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Officials said the main changes to the legal system under the agreement are included in existing laws that allow for Muslim clerics to advise judges when hearing cases and the setting up of an Islamic appeals court, which they said would ensure speedier and fairer justice.

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 the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before it was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.

Also Tuesday, a car bomb exploded near the residence of a local government official, killing three people and wounding 12 others on the outskirts of the main northwest city of Peshawar, police officer Sifwat Ghayur said.

More on Pakistan

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Losing ground to the Taliban

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