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Cleric Leads 'Peace March' Through Pakistan's Swat

MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) -- A radical Muslim cleric who led a struggle for Islamic law in Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley began a "peace march" on February 18 to persuade the Taliban to stop fighting, two days after reaching an accord with the government.

Maulana Sufi Mohammad was released last year after spending six years in prison for leading thousands of fighters into Afghanistan in a vain attempt to help the Taliban repel U.S.-backed backed forces.

The government freed the old rebel in the hope that after reaching agreement with Mohammad, he would persuade his even more radical son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, to halt an insurrection that began in late 2007.

"Maulana Sufi Mohammad's presence here is a blessing for the people of Swat as we can now hope for peace in the valley," said Zahoor Ahmed, a farmer who had travelled from a nearby village to take part in the rally.

"We are very confident that he will persuade the militants of Maulana Fazlullah to lay down arms."

Analysts say that for all the respect accorded to Mohammad there are worries that Fazlullah may have fallen under the spell of other Taliban factions and Al-Qaeda.

U.S. officials have expressed dismay to Pakistani officials over the government's decision to accede to the Islamists' demands for Shari'a, and speedy justice in the region.

They fear it will encourage the Taliban to believe militancy will succeed both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where President Barack Obama has began reinforcing U.S. troops.

But Pakistan is under immense pressure domestically.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 people have fled Swat since Fazlullah launched a campaign of violence, and at least 1,200 civilians have been killed in the region just 130 kilometers from Islamabad, and that was once a tourist paradise.