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Pakistan Allows Politics In Militant-Infested Areas

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistani President Asif Zardari has lifted a ban on political activity in the ethnic Pashtun tribal belt on the Afghan border in an apparent move to loosen the grip of militants on the lawless area.

Pakistan's seven tribal regions, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), are semi-autonomous and have never been fully integrated into the country's administrative and political system.

The FATA is a major sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban plotting violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond and analysts have long argued for it to be fully integrated with the rest of Pakistan and brought under government writ.

Zardari, speaking at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Pakistan's independence from Britain in 1947, said Pashtun tribesmen deserved to be treated the same as other Pakistanis.

"We have allowed political activities in FATA from today," Zardari said.

The FATA is governed under a system inherited from British colonialists with a government-appointed political agent ruling through the tribes, which observe their centuries-old codes, not Pakistani laws.

Political parties have not been allowed to operate in the FATA which analysts say helped to create a vacuum for hard-line Muslim clerics to exploit.

"We don't think they should have a different identity. We think whoever has Pakistani citizenship, all Pakistani laws should apply," Zardari said.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan's efforts to suppress militants on its side of the border are vital for a U.S.-led bid to stabilize Afghanistan, where Taliban have threatened to disrupt an August 20 presidential election.

Song And Dance

Zardari said a "handful of terrorists" had tried to impose their writ on Pakistan but the military had foiled their designs.

The military has in recent weeks driven militants from the Swat Valley, in Northwest Frontier Province, and has been attacking Taliban in several parts of FATA including South Waziristan.

In a major blow to the militants, Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistani Taliban and an Al-Qaeda cohort, was believed to have been killed in a missile strike by a CIA-operated drone in South Waziristan last week.

Pakistani and U.S. officials are almost certain that Mehsud, blamed for a wave of bomb attacks across Pakistan, including one that killed Zardari's wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, has been killed though his aides insist he is alive.

In the former tourist valley of Swat, where the Taliban had banned music and girls' education, hundreds of people including many women attended a music and dance show to celebrate Independence Day.

"It's as if we've won independence today," said Afshan, a woman teacher at the celebration. "Thank God we've got rid of the Taliban. I hope and pray they never return."

In South Waziristan, the Taliban fired three rockets at a military headquarters during independence celebrations. They had earlier circulated leaflets warning people not to attend any official celebration.

No one was hurt in the attack, security officials said, and the military responded with heavy artillery fire at militant positions on the outskirts of Wana, the region's main town, residents said.