PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Taliban militants in Pakistan’s Swat valley have moved into another district in a bid to broaden their control despite a deal designed to end extremist violence, officials said.
Hundreds of armed Taliban from the scenic northwestern valley have entered Buner district, only 110 kilometres (68 miles) from the capital Islamabad.
They have set up checkpoints, occupied mosques and ransacked the offices of non-governmental organisations, a local administration official said.
A Taliban commander said they would set up strict Islamic sharia courts in Buner as they have already done in Swat, but would not interfere with police work.
Indications of a spread of Taliban activism will likely fuel criticism of the accord agreed by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari earlier this month for Swat, which the United States said amounted to capitulation.
The central government lost control in Swat, a former ski resort and jewel in the crown of Pakistani tourism, after a violent two-year militant campaign to enforce strict Taliban-style sharia law.
It agreed to allow sharia law courts in Malakand, a district of some three million people in North West Frontier Province that includes the Swat valley, in order to halt the violence.
Despite that, the Taliban have not yet disarmed and appear to be trying to exert and expand control.
“The Taliban who have arrived from Swat have increased patrolling, banned music in public transport and rampaged (through the) offices of NGOs and taken their vehicles,” local government official Rashid Khan said.
“Taliban militants armed with rocket launchers were manning the checkpoints and operating from local mosques,” he said, added that a report had been filed at the local police station against “unknown militants.”
A Taliban commander said his men in Buner would set up an FM radio station and Islamic courts in the mountainous town.
“We will soon establish our radio station. Our Qazis (Islamic judges) will also start holding courts in Buner soon,” Mohammad Khalil told AFP.
“We will not interfere in the police work, they can continue their job,” he said, adding their purpose was to end a “sense of deprivation” and to provide speedy justice.
“People in their dozens have come to invite us” to extend sharia.
Swat valley descended into chaos when a radical cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, used his illegal FM channel to threaten opponents and motivate his followers, residents say.
Fazlullah’s men executed dozens of state workers and government supporters, prompting thousands of people to flee.
Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman, told AFP from Swat that “the government writ is not being challenged in Buner and Taliban are not creating any hurdle in the administration’s work.”
“The Taliban will leave Buner after enforcement of Islamic justice system,” he said.
However, several residents said they felt “scared” and planned to leave the Buner area, fearing similar violence to that in Swat.
North West Frontier Province’s information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said the government had fulfilled its promises in Malakand, “and the Taliban must lay down their arms.”
“The militants’ activities in Buner are in violation of the peace accord. After the agreement there is no justification to take up arms,” Hussain said, although he played down reports the Taliban had taken over the district.
“The government writ in Buner is intact,” he said, insisting that officials had not abandoned the area.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Dir district, a senior administration official was kidnapped by “unknown” people, according to another official.