WaPo : Cease-Fire After 100 Die in Pakistan

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cease-Fire After 100 Die in Pakistan

October 29, 2007

SWAT, Pakistan, Oct 29, 2007 (AP Online via COMTEX) -- Hundreds of civilians used a cease-fire Monday between government forces and militant supporters of a pro-Taliban cleric to flee a scenic valley where violence has killed more than 100 people.

The conflict has turned the one-time tourist destination into a new front in Pakistan's battle against Islamic extremism.

Authorities sent some 2,500 extra police and troops into Swat district last week to take on supporters of Maulana Fazlullah, a militant preacher who has set up a virtual mini-state and sought to impose strict Islamic rule.

The toll from the resulting clashes about 90 miles northwest of the capital emerged only after the cease-fire took effect early Monday.

Security forces backed by helicopter gunships pounded militant hideouts in the mountains Sunday. More than 60 militants were killed, said Badshah Gul Wazir, home secretary of North West Frontier province, which includes Swat.

Wazir said a total of 20 security forces and civilians have been killed since Friday, but gave no breakdown. Eight other troops and four police officers were missing, he said. On Thursday, a suicide attack on a military truck killed 20 people.

Sirajuddin, a spokesman for Fazlullah, said the cleric's followers killed 30 troops near the village of Charbagh, and would hand over the bodies only after the army releases some prisoners. There was no official confirmation of his claim.

Arshad Majid, district coordination officer in Swat, said tribal elders and clerics were holding talks with Fazlullah's aides.

"The cease-fire was announced by militants after these talks, which are progressing well," Majid told The Associated Press. "We hope there will be peace here soon."

Ali Rahman, a local police official, said about 600 people fled the conflict zone Monday, many crammed into buses and others on foot. Some villagers waded across a river and others struggled across fields clutching bags of possessions.

Rahman said militants were using the break in the hostilities to bury slain comrades, but in Chargagh were still calling for holy war over loudspeakers mounted on mosques and vehicles.

Sirajuddin, the militant spokesman who uses only one name, said the cease-fire was holding. "But, if the security forces attack us, our people would also target them with weapons," he told AP Television News.

He said they would keep trying to enforce Islamic law.

The violence erupted with Thursday's suicide attack in Mingora, the main town in the district. Security forces then attacked Fazlullah's stronghold in the village of Imam Dehri, and the militants responded by kidnapping and killing several troops, police and civilians. Some of the beheaded corpses were displayed in public.

The fighting intensified Sunday. Mohammed Ijaj, a hospital official, said 11 injured civilians were treated. Local officials also said security forces and police had been taken to the hospital.

Fazlullah leads the banned pro-Taliban group Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammedi, or Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law. He has launched a Taliban-style campaign in the Swat region and has called for holy war against the government.

The growing instability in northwestern Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, has shaken the authority of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S. war on terror.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan on Oct. 18 after eight years in exile, is in talks with Musharraf to form a political alliance to take on Islamic extremists. On Monday, Bhutto urged Musharraf to consult with the major parties before naming a caretaker government to govern until parliamentary elections due in January.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Ashraf Khan in Larkana contributed to this report.

Copyright (C) 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.