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Taliban Frees Kidnapped Pakistani Official

MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani authorities have freed two Taliban fighters in exchange for an official kidnapped in Swat Valley, where the government is seeking peace by offering to allow Islamic Shari'a law, a militant spokesman said.

"We have released the official and his six guards in exchange for our two colleagues," Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Reuters late on February 22.

Syed Mohammad Jawed, commissioner for the Malakand division that includes Swat, confirmed the official and his guards had been freed but refused to comment on any swap.

Taliban fighters kidnapped the official on February 22, after two of their comrades had been arrested in Peshawar, the capital of Northwest Frontier Province, a day earlier.

The Taliban complained that the arrests had violated their conditions for ordering a 10-day cease-fire in Swat on February 15.

The government has backed a deal with radical cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammad to restore Islamic law to Swat and neighboring regions if he could persuade the Taliban to give up fighting.

A senior government official said on February 21 that Taliban fighters and Pakistani officials had agreed to a "permanent cease-fire" in Swat.

But Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, who is Sufi Mohammad's son-in-law, said there would be a decision announced once the current temporary cease-fire expires in the middle of this week.

Around 1,200 people have been killed and 250,000 to 500,000 have fled Swat Valley since violence erupted in mid-2007.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has left for Washington for consultations with U.S. and Afghan officials for a review of the security strategy for the region.

U.S. officials have expressed unease over the Pakistani approach to pacifying Swat, which some critics say could result in the creation of another sanctuary for Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan.