MINGORA, Pakistan (AP) – A hard-line cleric sent by Pakistan to talk to the Taliban demanded Sunday that the government create Islamic courts in a northwest region by mid-March, a deadline that could undermine peace talks already alarming the West.
Pakistan agreed last month to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley in a bid to pacify the former tourist haven near the Afghan border that is now largely under militant control. The Swat Taliban and the military agreed to a cease-fire after months of fighting that has killed hundreds and displaced up to one-third of the valley’s 1.5 million residents.
The talks have raised concerns in Europe and the United States that a peace deal could turn Swat into a safe haven for Taliban fighters. Pakistan has deflected the criticism, saying it is merely responding to longtime local demands for a more efficient justice system, a desire exploited by militants to gain followers.
The provincial government made the pledge to establish Islamic courts to Sufi Muhammad, a pro-Taliban cleric whose son-in-law heads the Swat Taliban. Muhammad said Sunday he was unhappy with the government’s pace on fulfilling its promise.
“I’m not seeing any practical steps for the implementation of the peace agreement, except for ministers visiting Swat and uttering words,” the elderly cleric told reporters in the main Swat city of Mingora. He set a March 15 deadline for the Islamic courts to start running and said all other cases being held in regular courts should be stopped immediately. Muhammad also said that the Taliban and the government should release each other’s prisoners by the same date and that both sides should immediately abide by an agreement that includes no public displays of weapons. He said that if the courts deadline was not met, his followers would stage peaceful protests in Swat and surrounding areas.
Pakistani government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Past peace deals with militants in Pakistan, including one in Swat last year, have failed, often giving the extremists time to regroup and rearm.
Pakistani officials say their pledge on Islamic law will not include the harsh interpretations adhered to by many Taliban, such as banning girls from getting an education. However, there also has been no public acknowledgment of any provision in an agreement that would require the Swat militants to give their arms.