ISLAMABAD, (AP) – Pakistan forged ahead with a severely strained peace deal with Taliban militants, announcing a new Islamic appellate court for part of its northwest. But a cleric mediating the pact rejected the panel Sunday.
Meanwhile, the army accused the Taliban of acting in “gross violation” of the peace accord in the Swat Valley by committing several violent acts over the weekend, including attacking security forces and partially destroying a bridge.
The developments underscored Pakistan’s uncertainty about how best to tackle militancy on its soil.
Under the peace deal struck in February, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas that make up the Malakand Division. The pact appeared to embolden the Taliban in Swat, who soon entered the adjacent Buner district.
Critics including the U.S. have cast the peace deal as a surrender. It is of particular concern to American officials, who worry Swat will turn into a haven for militants near Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO troops are battling an increasingly virulent insurgency.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is to meet President Barack Obama during a visit to Washington later this week. Afghan President Hamid Karzai also is to join the talks.
Over the past week, the Pakistani military has gone on the offensive to push the Taliban out of Buner, just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Islamabad. An army statement Sunday said 80 militants had been killed so far along with three soldiers. An important local commander was believed to be among the dead militants, the statement said.
The dangerous nature of the area makes independent verification of the army statement near impossible.
The North West Frontier Province government insists it is not abandoning the peace deal or the concept of dialogue.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the province’s information minister, said Saturday that the formation of the Islamic appellate court — the Darul Qaza — meant the government was close to fulfilling its obligations. He said two judges have been appointed to the panel, with more to be named later.
Already a handful of judges trained in Islamic law, called qazis, have been hearing relatively routine disputes in Swat. Hussain said more such judges would be named throughout the rest of Malakand Division.
Pakistani officials insist that the deal has, at the very least, symbolic value. By carrying out their part of the agreement, they can gain more support from the public to take action against the Taliban if the militants violate the pact, they say.
A speedier justice system has long been a demand of local residents in Swat, where regular courts are corrupt and inefficient. It’s a grievance Swat Taliban militants have exploited in their brutal campaign there.
The new appellate court takes away justification for militants to keep fighting, Hussain said. “Now anyone carrying arms would be treated as a rebel and would be prosecuted in the qazi courts,” he said.
But the announcement did not satisfy a hard-line cleric who has mediated the deal, his spokesman said. Amir Izzat Khan said the cleric, Sufi Muhammad, was supposed to be consulted on the makeup of the appeals court but was not.
“We reject this Darul Qaza and further consultation is on to discuss the future line of action,” Khan said.
A good deal still remained unclear about the appellate court, including when it would start functioning and whether its decisions could be reviewed by Pakistan’s Supreme Court — an institution that Muhammad rejects.
Asked about the Supreme Court’s role, Hussain, the provincial minister, said: “The people of Malakand need not to go to anywhere to seek justice after the whole system is established right there.”
The Taliban’s infiltration of Buner has alarmed many in Pakistan about their ultimate intentions.
Pushing the Taliban out of Buner does not mean the army is willing to try to oust them from their Swat Valley stronghold, even as a cease-fire there appears increasingly in danger.
The army statement listed several Swat incidents over the weekend that it attributed to militants, including the looting of a bank and at least three discoveries of explosives-laden vehicles.
The army blamed an attack on the power grid in the main Swat city of Mingora on the militants. The attack deprived a large area of electricity, said Fazal Hussain, a senior official of the local power company who would not speculate on the identity of the attackers.
The army statement also said militants had partially blown up a bridge in the Khwaza Khela area of Swat. Various clashes between security forces and militants left at least one soldier dead and three soldiers and four militants wounded, it added.
The army said the alleged militant actions were “in gross violation of the peace accord.”
Also Sunday, two decapitated bodies were found near Khwaza Khela, police officer Umer Rahim Khan said. They have not been identified, he said.