MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) - An influential Muslim cleric in Pakistan’s volatile Swat valley on Sunday said the government must follow through on its promise to implement Islamic law in the area or face protests.
Taliban militants announced a ceasefire on February 24 and Pakistani forces halted military operations in Swat last month after the radical cleric, Maulana Sufi Mohammad drew the offer to introduce Islamic law or sharia from the government of North West Frontier Province.
Mohammad, who has acted as a peacemaker between the government and the militants, also called on the authorities and the Taliban to release prisoners they hold in Swat, a former tourist destination in the mountains just 130 km (90 miles) north of the capital, Islamabad.
On Sunday two soldiers were wounded on Sunday when their vehicle was attacked by a roadside bomb and small arms fire in Kabal district of Swat, security officials said -- the first incident since the militants’ ceasefire announcement.
Officials have said President Asif Ali Zardari would only sign-off on sharia justice in Swat if peace was sustained.
The government, if it does introduce Islamic law, is likely to use a fairly soft interpretation -- no special courts are being set up and existing officials will be trained in Islamic jurisprudence.
Critics in the West and Pakistan say the offer to introduce sharia is appeasement that emboldens Islamic militants. U.S. officials fear it may create a safe haven for Taliban and al Qaeda.
Mohammad set a March 10 deadline for security forces and the Taliban to free their prisoners, and set another five days later for the government to implement Islamic law.
“We also asked the government to implement Nifaz-e-Adl (a system of Islamic justice) by March 15 after which we will launch a protest,” Mohammad told a news conference in Mingora, the main town in the valley where up to 16,000 government soldiers are stationed.
He said the government was dragging its feet. Last month Mohammad had appealed for the security forces and militants to release prisoners, remove road barricades and for the troops deployed in schools, houses, mosques and hospitals to be moved.
The government’s representative in the area met with Mohammed and said the authorities will release detainees and implement Islamic laws by the deadlines.
On Saturday Mohammad’s son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, who leads the Taliban in Swat, said in a radio broadcast the government’s reluctance to release captured fighters harmed peace efforts. Militants released seven men after the agreement.
Mohammad, who spent six years in jail for leading thousands of fighters to Afghanistan in a vain bid to help the Taliban repel U.S.-backed forces in 2001, was freed last year in the hope he would prevail over Fazlullah to shun violence.
Between 250,000 and 500,000 people have fled Swat since Fazlullah launched a campaign of violence in late 2007. At least 1,200 civilians have been killed.
Some people doubt whether Mohammad can rein in Fazlullah whose fighters have torched nearly 200 girls’ schools in a campaign against female education. His men have also conducted public executions, including beheading people, saying they are enforcing sharia in Swat.
Apart from Swat, Pakistan troops have been fighting militants on several fronts in the semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun tribal areas, well-known sanctuaries for al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Matthew Jones
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