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Pakistani Taliban Announce Indefinite Truce In Swat

Islamists gather at a camp before a peace rally at Mingora in the Swat valley on February 18.
MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani Taliban militants have announced an indefinite cease-fire in the Swat valley in the northwest of the country, one day after the army said it was ceasing operations in the region.

The cease-fire, following an agreement by the authorities on the enforcement of Islamic Shari'a law in the valley, is likely to compound concerns among Western countries, which fear a truce will create another militant sanctuary in Pakistan.

Militants in Swat, which until 2007 was one of Pakistan's prime tourist destinations, had already announced a 10-day truce after a radical cleric, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, struck a deal with authorities on the enforcement of Shari'a law.

That temporary truce has been made permanent, said a Taliban spokesman in the valley, 120 kilometer northwest of Islamabad.

"We have agreed on an indefinite cease-fire," said the spokesman, Muslim Khan.

Khan said the Taliban in the valley, led by Sufi Mohammad's militant son-in-law, Fazlullah, also decided to release three people, including two politicians, as a "goodwill gesture."

The militants had virtually taken over control of the entire valley in recent months, residents said, killing their enemies and blowing up schools, which they said the security forces were using as outposts.

The army said on February 23 that it had ceased operations against militants in the valley and said there would be no sanctuary for militants there if the writ of the state was reestablished.

The United States and other Western countries have been pressing Pakistan for years to eliminate militant sanctuaries, especially in areas along the Afghan border from where Taliban infiltrate into Afghanistan.

Fighting flared in Swat in late 2007 after hundreds of militants infiltrated from Afghan border enclaves to support Fazlullah and his drive to introduce hard-line Islamist rule.

Danger Zone

The military said this year about 1,500 militants had been killed in fighting since in August. There was no independent verification of that estimate.

The government said this month 1,200 civilians had been killed in violence in the valley since 2007 and the human rights group Amnesty International said between 200,000 and 500,000 people had been displaced.

Militants in the neighbouring Bajaur tribal region on the Afghan border to the west of Swat also announced a unilateral cease-fire on February 23.

Militants in Bajaur had been told to approach the authorities to discuss the modalities of a cease-fire including the laying down of their arms, said military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.