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Pakistan frees pro-Taliban leader

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Pakistan freed a pro-Taliban cleric and quickly signed an accord with his hard-line group yesterday, the first major step by the new government to talk peace with Islamic militants and break with President Pervez Musharraf’s policy of using force.

The day’s developments began with the release of Sufi Muhammad, who is believed in his 70s, after more than five years in custody following his dispatch of thousands of followers to fight in Afghanistan.

A few hours later, the government of North West Frontier Province said Muhammad’s group signed a pact renouncing violence in return for being allowed to peacefully campaign for Islamic law. Security forces have the right to “act against” any extremists who attack the government.

Analysts cautioned it would take time to judge the new approach, noting Musharraf also struck truces with some groups that U.S. officials have complained gave Pakistani militants as well as Taliban and al-Qaida fighters a chance to build up their strength.

The anti-government sentiments in the region affected by yesterday’s deal are seen as less intractable than those held by Taliban sympathizers in the tribal regions of Waziristan, where U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders are hiding.

Provincial government spokesman Faridullah Khan said the pact covers the Swat Valley and neighboring districts in this area along the Afghan frontier.

It was not clear if the deal was accepted by Muhammad’s son-in-law, Mualana Fazlullah, whose fighters seized control of the Swat Valley last year, prompting a bloody army offensive.

Fazlullah’s spokesman could not be reached for comment late yesterday. Fazlullah is reportedly at odds with Muhammad, and experts expressed doubts the younger militant would change.

Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst, said the deal with Muhammad demonstrated the new government’s willingness to try dialogue with militants and could increase pressure on Fazlullah and others to lay down their arms.

“But it’s a long way before you can make any judgment as to whether this is a success,” he said, citing the previous failed peace efforts with pro-Taliban militants.

“We have to see … to what extent both parties are going to abide by the agreement and whether the militants use this period to consolidate,” he said.

Pakistan’s national government, led by the party of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, wants to use dialogue and development to curb militancy in the tribal region. The North West Frontier provincial government, which is led by a Pashtun nationalist party, has joined the effort.

It is a major shift from the more aggressive approach that Musharraf’s military regime took with U.S. support after Pakistan joined the war on terror following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad could not be reached for comment late yesterday. In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he did not have any details on Muhammad’s release, but said the U.S. is “continuing to cooperate with the government of Pakistan as it seeks to confront extremism.”

While Western nations have voiced support for dialogue if Pakistan’s militants renounce violence, the release of Muhammad could cause some unease.

Muhammad founded Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammed – the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law – and sent thousands of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan against the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001.

The deaths of many of those fighters hurt Muhammad’s popularity. But the group resurfaced under the leadership of Fazlullah, who won a large following with firebrand preaching over an illegal FM radio station but alienated others by turning to violence.

Fazlullah tapped into popular frustration over official corruption and failings in the justice system. His group wants a Taliban-like system, including compulsory beards for men, mandatory veils for women and the outlawing of music and television.

Musharraf banned Muhammad’s group in early 2002, and Muhammad was arrested when he returned to Pakistan and sentenced in November 2002 on a weapons charge.

Khan, the provincial spokesman, said the peace pact was signed yesterday evening by Muhammad’s deputy and eight other clerics as well as four officials, including three provincial government ministers.

The pact was announced after Muhammad was released from a hospital in Peshawar where he had spent the last five months because of poor health. He left in a vehicle under police escort, and later met with the province’s chief minister.

Pakistan’s army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said that the military was not involved in Muhammad’s release and that no decision had been made to withdraw the army from Swat.

He said 90 percent of the valley is peaceful, but the army is still looking for militant holdouts and recently set up a checkpoint at Fazlullah’s former headquarters to stop his followers from returning.

In a sign of continuing insecurity, Pakistani security forces clashed yesterday with gunmen to recover two U.N. employees who were kidnapped on a road linking Pakistan to Afghanistan.

One paramilitary officer was killed and four were wounded in the fighting in the Khyber tribal region, said Mohammed Iqbal, a local government official. The two employees of the World Food Program, both Pakistanis, escaped unharmed, he said.

Also yesterday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court struck down a law requiring candidates for parliament to have bachelor’s degrees, clearing the way for Bhutto’s widower to run for a seat and possibly become prime minister.

The ruling was another sign of Musharraf’s dwindling influence following his party’s defeat in February elections. He introduced the degree requirement in 2002, supposedly to improve the caliber of lawmakers.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar said the provision was struck down after a seven-judge panel heard arguments that it discriminated against many Pakistani.

Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, has indicated he might run for a parliament seat. Zardari has said he has a degree, but its nature is uncertain and his party acknowledged it was unclear he would have qualified under the old law.

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