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Veteran Pakistani Pashtun leader defies Taliban

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Veteran ethnic Pashtun politician Mohammad Afzal Khan refuses to leave home in northwest Pakistan’s Swat Valley even though the Taliban have tried to kill him, and says the people should stand up to the militants.

Swat was until recently one of Pakistan’s top tourist destinations but Pakistani Taliban have all but taken over the scenic mountain valley, imposing their severe interpretation of Islamic law and slaughtering opponents with impunity.

Many families have fled, while residents say many policemen have either deserted or simply refuse to act against the militants, who have shot, blown up or beheaded numerous officers.

But Khan, an 82-year-old former cabinet minister known as Afzal Lala, or Afzal the Elder, has chosen to stay on to try to rally resistance to the militants.

“I’m from this soil. It’s my home. My tribe is here,” Khan told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“I want to live among my people. I won’t run away.”

The Islamists’ grip on the valley, just 130 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad and away from the lawless Afghan border, highlights Pakistan’s deteriorating security.

The government, struggling with a sagging economy and tension with old rival India after November’s militant attack in Mumbai, has vowed to regain control of the valley by talking to militants who lay down their arms. But there’s no sign of that.

The Taliban have tried to kill Khan three times and have placed him on top of a list of politicians and prominent residents they have demanded appear before their “courts”. Residents refer to the list as a “hit list”.

Khan blames the government for failing to provide proper security, leading to the exodus of fearful people from the valley, and says people have to stand their ground.

“I ask my friends and the people of Swat to return to their homes. It’s our land. It’s our problem, we have to sort it out.”

As well as attacking the security forces, the militants have banned girls from classes and destroyed about 180 schools while broadcasting edicts and threats over their illegal FM radio.

They have threatened to throw acid at men who do not grow beards and recently killed a woman singer and left her body in a square in the valley’s main town.

“LOST COURAGE”

Khan is a member of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party that rules North West Frontier Province and is part of the ruling federal government coalition.

The party opposes the Taliban, many of whom are also Pashtun, and several of its members have been killed by the militants and its leaders have been targetted by suicide bombers. Most party leaders have fled from Swat.

Khan is in favour of military action against the insurgents, saying the government had to regain control.

“If the government fails, if your last option is exhausted, then this region will fall into their hands,” he said, adding talks should only start if militants laid down arms.

The militants are led by a radical cleric, Mullah Fazlullah, and are trying to set up their own administration, including their Islamic courts, but Khan said no one took that seriously.

“I don’t accept it, the people don’t accept it,” he said.

But many people failed to understand why the military had not gone after the militants, he said.

The military launched a big offensive in the valley in late 2007. The militants withdrew up remote side valleys to avoid government artillery and slipped back later.

Khan, who lives in a well-guarded house surrounded by fruit trees, said he had faith.

“Being a Muslim, I have faith in Allah. Nothing can happen to me no matter if Fazlullah puts my name on his list or not.”

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