By Faris Ali
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, May 21 Pakistan's government promised to "gradually" pull out troops from the northwestern valley of Swat after signing a peace agreement with Taliban militants on Wednesday.
The deal was done a day after the United States advised its ally against negotiating with militants, saying it could give them breathing space to plot attacks in Pakistan and abroad.
Authorities in North West Frontier Province also agreed to enforce sharia, Islamic law, in Swat in return for assurances that militants led by charismatic cleric Fazlullah will cease attacks, allow girls to go to school and stop carrying weapons in public.
"We hope this agreement will help bring peace in Swat," Bashir Ahmed Bilour, senior provincial minister, told reporters after signing the 15-point pact.
Ali Bakhsh, the militants' representative in the talks, said he was fully satisfied with the agreement.
Pakistan has cut peace deals in the past but critics, including western allies, have complained that these resulted in militants regrouping and intensifying cross-border attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Speaking at a congressional hearing, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte voiced the U.S. government's misgivings.
"Are we concerned about the possibility of negotiations between the government or elements of the government and these extremist groups up there ... yes," he said on Tuesday.
"I hope that they proceed cautiously and not accept an outcome that would give extremist elements the right, or the ability, to use the FATA area with impunity to carry out attacks on Pakistan, and carry out attacks on Afghanistan or the United States or the rest of the world," he said, referring to Pakistani tribal areas, commonly known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
ILLEGAL RADIO STATIONS
Swat, which is tribal, though not a part of FATA, had been the main tourist destination in NWFP until last year, when the militants launched a violent campaign to enforce Taliban-style law in the region.
Hundreds of people have been killed in fighting between the security forces and the militants, many of whom are veterans of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Fazlullah had set up illegal FM radio stations in the region to propagate his teachings.
Bilour said militants had agreed that they would not run these radio stations without permission from authorities.
The government also agreed to review the criminal cases filed against Fazlullah and other militants, he added.
Fazlullah is an ally of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and a cohort of al Qaeda.
Pakistani authorities are separately negotiating with Mehsud through tribal elders to strike a peace deal with him.
Mehsud is blamed for a campaign of suicide attacks across Pakistan since mid-2007, including the one that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December.
Mehsud has denied his involvement in Bhutto's assassination and attacks haven fallen off since a new coalition led by Bhutto's party, which assumed power last month, vowed to open talks with militants to end violence. (Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Alex Richardson)