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Islamist Militants Call Cease-Fire In Swat Valley

Local residents flee Swat valley
MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Islamist fighters called a 10-day cease-fire from February 15 in Pakistan's northwestern Swat Valley, where peace talks were under way that could restore Islamic Shari'a as the main system of law in the region.

Militants seeking to impose the strict form of Islamic law have also destroyed more than 200 girls schools in the mountainous valley, once a popular tourist destination, just 130 kilometers northwest of Islamabad.

Last year in a bid to pacify the valley the authorities released Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a radical cleric who led a revolt in Swat in the 1990s, but the fighting continued and forced tens of thousands of people to flee.

"We're announcing cease-fire as a goodwill gesture for the ongoing talks between Maulana Sufi Mohammad and the government," Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the militants, said.

On February 14, the militants in Swat freed a Chinese man held hostage for more than five months, in a move Pakistani officials saw as a act of good faith.

The new U.S. administration is alarmed by the possibility of the government giving in to militant demands to bring back sharia, according to Pakistani officials.

U.S. officials privately advocate heavy deployment of soldiers to restore state law although Pakistan and its security forces have tried and failed to do so in other regions with calamitous results.

President Asif Ali Zardari told CBS in an interview to be broadcast on February 15 that the Taliban had established itself across a large part of Pakistan, forcing the civilian government to fight a war for its own survival.

Zardari's government, which came to power less than a year ago after more than eight years of rule by army chief General Pervez Musharraf, hopes a compromise agreement will weaken ties between Swat's militants and other Pakistani Taliban groups and al Qaeda, according to officials.

The army is struggling to push back an Islamist insurgency spreading across the northwest. Security forces launched a campaign to clear militants out of the Bajaur trial region in August, and the offensive has since moved to Mohmand.

Representatives of Maulana Sufi Mohammad are due to meet government officials on February 16 in Peshawar, the capital of Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

Having already met the cleric, NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told Reuters had high hopes for peace in Swat.

"I think things are moving in right direction and after the center's [federal government's] approval, the Nifaz-e-Adal regulations will be announced," he said, referring to restoring Shari'a in Swat.

Religious conservatives in Swat have long fought for the old law to replace the state's secular laws, which came into force after the former principality was absorbed into Pakistan's federation in 1969.

Battle-hardened by the revolt in the 1990s, Maulana Sufi Mohammad later led thousands of fighters across to Afghanistan to support the Taliban militia when it came under attack from U.S.-backed forces in late 2001.

The cleric was arrested when he returned, but his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah took up the cause, leading another revolt in late 2007, just months after Musharraf ordered commandos to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad in order to stop an armed movement seeking to impose Shari'a in the capital.

Fazlullah brought his faction under the umbrella of the Pakistani Taliban, headed by Baitullah Mehsud, a militant commander based in the tribal region of South Waziristan.

In a separate effort to heal the wounds, Zardari ordered on February 15 compensation be paid to people affected by the violence in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal lands and insurgency-hit districts of NWFP.