Key cleric departs Pakistan district

His exit imperils cease-fire in Swat

By Nahal Toosi
Associated Press / April 10, 2009
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ISLAMABAD - The hard-line Muslim cleric who has mediated peace talks between Pakistan and the Taliban in the Swat Valley packed up and left the northwestern district yesterday, angrily denouncing the president for failing to sign off on imposing Islamic law in the area.

Sufi Muhammad's departure imperils a fragile cease-fire between militants and security forces that brought a tense calm to the valley after months of bloodletting but also alarmed Western leaders who want Pakistan to eradicate Al Qaeda and Taliban havens.

The potential for a return to violence in Swat comes as nuclear-armed Pakistan faces unrest well beyond its northwest tribal regions, where militants are believed to have bases from which they plan attacks on US and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Late yesterday, the US Embassy said "heightened security" concerns had prompted it to suspend routine consular services Friday in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, where a recent suicide attack killed eight people. Spokesman Lou Fintor said consulates in other major cities would be open and emergency services were still available for Americans in the capital.

In the southwestern Baluchistan region, meanwhile, deadly protests erupted following the discovery of the mutilated bodies of three missing political dissidents - killings that activists immediately blamed on Pakistan's intelligence agencies.

Thanks in part to Muhammad's mediation in Swat, an agreement worked out in February ended 18 months of terrorism and bloody clashes that killed hundreds and forced up to a third of the valley's 1.5 million people to flee.

Imposing Islamic law in the one-time tourist haven was the key plank of the pact between the province's government and Muhammad.

Some judges trained in Islamic law have already started hearing cases in Swat, but Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has declined to sign the order allowing such courts until peace is restored. He hasn't given specifics on what that means.

Taliban fighters in Swat have retained their weapons. This week, they pushed into the neighboring area of Buner and engaged in deadly firefights with unwelcoming tribesmen and police.

Muhammad had been camped out in the valley's main town of Mingora with hundreds of black-turbaned supporters.

The cleric said they were unhappy with Zardari's "negative attitude."

"From now on, President Zardari will be responsible for any situation in Swat," Muhammad told reporters. "The provincial government is sincere, and our agreement with the provincial government is intact, but we are ending our peace camp."

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the province's information minister, said he believed the federal government supports the peace effort, but he couldn't say when the Islamic law bill might be signed.

Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the province's government should push Zardari to sign the agreement.