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Pakistanis fear resurgence of violence in Swat Valley

| Sunday, April 12, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The Swat Valley's beleaguered people hoped a deal with extremists would restore peace to their mountainous region, once legendary with tourists as "the Switzerland of the East."

Pakistani officials hoped that restoring Islamic law in the once-independent province would steal an issue from the Islamist insurgency, despite condemnation by U.S. officials.

Yet the hard-line cleric who brokered the deal, Sufi Mohammed, has packed up and left the valley -- accusing the government of reneging on its promise -- and fear of warfare has returned.

A "wave of apprehension has befallen Swat ... people see it as the first step towards the collapse of the deal and back to violence," says Adnan Aurangzeb, a former parliamentarian and grandson of Swat's last ruler when it remained a separate princely state in the 1960s.

Swat, some 60 miles from this Pakistani capital, is just one of many burning issues in this nation of 170 million.

The world's only Muslim nuclear power is a key U.S. ally against Islamist extremists. It suffers near-daily terrorist attacks in major cities; its army is battling al-Qaida and other Islamist militants along the border with Afghanistan.

A legacy of brutality

Swat's deal with terrorists, like others before it, has been hotly debated here and in Washington.

Sufi Mohammed negotiated it on behalf of militants led by his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, whose Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws has brutalized Swat since 2007.

Mohammed has his own extremist legacy: In 2001 he led 10,000 fighters against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Most of his followers were killed, and he was imprisoned when he returned to Pakistan; he was released in 2008.

Fazlullah's 2,000-strong insurgency attacked military convoys, killed local police, torched girls' schools and seized a highly profitable emerald mine. It beheaded many of its foes in village after village, to enforce "Islamic" rule.

The militants initially played on public desire for the "swift justice" of Islamic law that ruled Swat as an independent state, Aurangzeb explains.

"Two months ago, they announced a list of 47 people," a Swat businessman says, declining to give his name for fear of retaliation. "They said, 'Wherever we find them, we will behead them and their relatives.' Today, one person on that list is alive.

"People are very scared. They are afraid to speak."

When Pakistan's army counter-attacked and cleared Fazlullah's force from the valley in 2007, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a commander in the military-garrison city of Rawalpindi, says, "The public was overwhelmingly supporting us."

A truce and Pakistan's parliamentary elections in 2008 allowed the militants to regroup.

"The first thing they did was target all those who had supported the military," Abbas recalls. A third of the region's 1.5 million residents fled.

'Battleground for jihadists'

"Swat has become the new battleground for the jihadists from all over the country," says Zahid Hussain, author of "Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam." Foreign fighters and militants from Beitullah Mehsud's insurgency in Waziristan, another Pakistani tribal area, joined Fazlullah.

Local people who cooperated with Pakistani troops "were killed ... nobody came to protect their lives," says Hussain. "That is basically the reason why the militants have been able to control the area -- it is the failure of the state."

Pakistani officials say they agreed to the latest deal in order to end the bloodshed and to wean the populace from the militants.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, in an exclusive interview with the Tribune-Review, said the agreement recognized Swat's historic independence and tradition of Islamic law, and was predicated on the insurgency ending.

"If peace is restored, we have no objections," he said from his Islamabad home. "... This should not be taken as a surrender."

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had not yet signed the provision on Islamic law -- which Sufi Mohammed condemned as a bad-faith sign. But Islamic judges had set up courts in Swat and an uneasy semblance of normal life had returned, according to locals.

But a recent video of Pakistani Taliban flogging a screaming young woman for being in the company of a man caused an outcry in Islamabad; the country's Supreme Court called for an investigation, and newspapers condemned the flogging as barbaric.

'We are in a black hole now'

Analysts such as Hussain think any agreement with militants is a government surrender.

"They virtually have now an area where they have established Taliban rule," the investigative author says. "And it is going to have far-reaching effect, because that has emboldened the militants operating in other parts of Northwestern Pakistan."

Former interior minister Lt. Gen. Hamid Nawaz Khan told Pakistani reporters he fears more extremists will shift from the Afghan-Pakistan border to Swat, making it "the biggest safe haven for al-Qaida and the Taliban."

Aurangzeb, whose grandfather once ruled Swat, suspects U.S. pressure stopped President Zardari from signing the Islamic-law regulation, which he describes as "basically toothless" and unlike the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan.

But "Zardari is expected to head a progressive, liberal and secular party," he contends, and Islamic law "is a negation of the manifesto of (his) Pakistan Peoples Party, and he cannot become a party to it.

"So he will back out (of the deal), and the Taliban will say, 'Look -- we told you so.' And they will (enforce) their brand of shariah" -- Islamic law -- "by ... the barrel of a gun."

The region's people are bracing for the worst.

"We are in a black hole now and do know which direction we will come out of it," Aurangzeb says. "But the signs don't look good, and then what credibility does the government have left?"

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