WaPo : Pro-Taliban Leader Released by Pakistan

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pro-Taliban Leader Released by Pakistan

By Candace Rondeaux and Imtiaz Ali | Washington Post Foreign Service | April 22, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 21 -- Pakistani authorities on Monday released a top pro-Taliban leader who incited thousands of fighters to battle against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001, officials said.

The release was part of a broader deal between the secular political leadership of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and Islamist groups, which exert strong influence within the religiously conservative population. It represents the type of political negotiation promised by the country's newly elected lawmakers with groups the Bush administration and President Pervez Musharraf consider enemies.

Sufi Mohammad, the founder of one of Pakistan's most extreme religious organizations, was released after spending more than five years in confinement. Ajmal Khan, the deputy superintendent of the main jail in the city of Peshawar, said the government ordered the pro-Taliban leader freed from a hospital in the town of Hayatabad, where he was being treated for an unspecified condition.

Government officials involved in the deal offered no immediate comment on Mohammad's release. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, said the army was not involved and referred inquiries to the Interior Ministry. Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.

But officials with the North-West Frontier Province's ruling Awami National Party, or ANP, and a spokesman for the Taliban, confirmed that Mohammad's release was the result of several weeks of negotiation.

A six-member committee led by the ANP, a secular party, agreed to release Mohammad on several conditions, including a promise from his group to abandon propaganda and radical radio broadcasts, and to cooperate with government agencies in the region, according to ANP officials.

Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said his group had demanded Mohammad's release in discussions with the government.

"We hope the government will take more such confidence-building measures," he said.

A few hours after Mohammad was freed, a bomb exploded in the home of an ANP leader, Baz Mohammad Khan, in the northwest town of Banu. There was no immediate assertion of responsibility.

A member of a local bomb squad was injured when the explosion went off, as other squad members tried to defuse a second bomb found in the house, according to local news reports.

Leaders of Pakistan's ruling parliamentary coalition, which includes the ANP, have said they want to negotiate a political solution to violence in the region, a haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, as well as their sympathizers. The ANP captured the largest number of votes in North-West Frontier Province in February's parliamentary elections, drawing popular support for its promise to open dialogue with extremists.

Mohammad is the founder of Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammed, also known as the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, which has recently fought the Pakistani military in Swat Valley under the leadership of Mohammad's son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The pro-Taliban group seeks to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law, which calls for severe restrictions on women and for the abolition of music and films. After U.S. forces routed the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, Mohammad was fiercely criticized for recruiting thousands of Pakistani boys and young men from poor villages to fight with little or no training.

Hakim Khan, a resident of the Buner district in northwest Pakistan, said his nephew joined the fight in Afghanistan at age 18, but soon wound up in prison, where he spent several months. Khan said Mohammad's release was an insult to the families who lost their sons, husbands and fathers in battle. "He does not deserve a heroic welcome," Khan said. "He should be treated like a criminal who played with the emotions of innocent people in the name of Islam and jihad. I wish people would throw stones at him upon his return."

Samina Ahmed, a Pakistani political analyst with the International Crisis Group in Islamabad, said the move to free Mohammad "bodes ill" for the push to rein in violence in the country's troubled northwest. She said that Pakistan's newly elected coalition government is setting a dangerous precedent by allowing Mohammad to return to his home and that the decision could erode efforts to get tough on the most recalcitrant extremists.

"Had Sufi Mohammad been tried, sentenced and imprisoned and served his sentence, then that would be understandable. But to release him on the dubious basis that it will appease militants into giving up arms is misguided," Ahmed said. "It means the ANP doesn't realize that appeasement doesn't translate into reconciliation."

Mohammad apparently continues to command respect among some of the province's top political leaders.

"Sufi is a citizen of Pakistan, and there should be negotiations with him and he should be heard," said Afzal Khan Lala, a senior ANP official.

"I belong to Swat and I was personally targeted by the militants here," Lala said. "Despite that, I'll be happy if peace comes to my region and this whole tribal belt, even at the cost of freeing Sufi Mohammad."

Mohammad's release came hours after Pakistani paramilitary troops clashed with fighters in the restive Khyber Agency region following the kidnapping of two U.N. Food Program workers Monday morning. The two men were recovered, but at least one paramilitary soldier was killed and seven others wounded in the fighting, said Ishrat Rizvi, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Pakistan.

Ali reported from Peshawar.