ISLAMABAD – Police arrested an influential pro-Taliban cleric on Sunday who had brokered a failed peace deal in northern Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley, an indication the government will no longer negotiate with militants.
Authorities accused Sufi Muhammad, father-in-law of Swat’s notorious Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, of encouraging violence and terrorism.
The peace deal in February imposed Sharia, or Islamic law, in the valley in exchange for an end to two years of fighting. But it was widely seen as handing over control of the valley, once a popular tourist destination, to the Taliban.
The deal collapsed in April when the Taliban advanced south out of Swat, triggering a military offensive and a spree of retaliatory attacks by militants in the northwest and beyond. Some 2 million people fled the region, and although hundreds of thousands have returned in the past two weeks as the military operation winds down, sporadic fighting continues.
“At this critical juncture, we cannot allow, we cannot let a person walk free, a person who has supported terrorists,” said Mian Iftikhar Hussein, information minister for the North West Frontier Province.
“Instead of keeping his promises by taking steps for the sake of peace, and speaking out against terrorism, he did not utter a single word against terrorists,” Iftikhar said in a news conference in Peshawar.
Muhammad leads a pro-Taliban group known as the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammedi, or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law. He was jailed in 2002 but was freed last year after renouncing violence.
But Muhammad himself was not in control of armed militants in Swat, and the Taliban’s ability to bounce back from the recent offensive against them will depend more on their leaders, including the cleric’s son-in-law. Despite occasional rumours to the contrary, none has been captured or is known to have been killed.
The Taliban were already on the run from the army and so the arrest was unlikely to have any significant impact on the militants themselves, said Mahmood Shah, a former security chief in the tribal region.
“I think they are totally dispirited,” he said. “I don’t think this arrest will have any effect on them.”
But his arrest is a further sign that the government will no longer negotiate with the Taliban – a position likely to please the U.S., which is looking for signs Pakistan is serious about cracking down on militants.
The Pakistan government has already said as much. In June, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had said action, not words, were needed.
“The nation wants peace and the elimination of terrorism in the country, so this is not the time for talks,” he had said.
Earlier Sunday, police said they had arrested former lawmaker Shah Abdul Aziz and a suspected Taliban militant in connection with the beheading of Polish geologist Piotr Stanczak, who was kidnapped near the Afghan border last September.
Investigator Malik Tariq Awan told The Associated Press that the two were taken into custody a month ago. He said Aziz, a member of a pro-Taliban religious party elected to parliament’s lower house in 2002, is believed to have plotted the abduction.
Stanczak’s beheading – shown in a video that surfaced in February – was the first of a westerner in Pakistan since the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
The other man detained was identified only as suspected militant Ataullah.
In Islamabad, police spokesman Naim Khan said information gleaned from Ataullah allowed police to raid a hide-out in the capital’s outskirts, arresting three suspects and seizing weapons and ammunition. Another police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details of the case, said the men had been planning attacks on government buildings.
Separately, in Swat’s main town of Mingora, authorities rescued several teenagers forcibly recruited by the Taliban, Brig. Tahir Khan said. Seven boys, their lower faces covered to prevent them being recognized, appeared to speak to reporters.
One of them, 16-year-old Shaukat Ali, said he had been playing cricket when the Taliban took him.
“They wanted me to become a warrior instead playing cricket, a game of infidels,” he said. “They tortured me when I refused. They offered to pay my family every month for my services.”
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Asif Shahzad and Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali contributed to this report.