ISLAMABAD – Pakistan has forged ahead with its end of a severely strained peace deal with Taliban militants, announcing a new Islamic appellate court for part of its northwest. But a spokesman for a cleric mediating the pact rejected the panel Sunday.
The developments came as the military was fending off Taliban fighters in a district near the Pakistani capital and underscored ambivalence in the country about what approach is best in dealing with the armed extremists.
Under the peace deal struck in February, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas that make up the Malakand Division. The pact appeared to embolden the Taliban in Swat, who soon entered the adjacent Buner district.
Violence also shook Swat over the weekend, though there was no sign the military intends to break its truce in the valley.
Critics including the U.S. have cast the peace deal as a surrender. It is of particular concern to American officials, who worry Swat will turn into a haven for militants near Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO troops are battling an increasingly virulent insurgency.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is due to meet President Barack Obama during a visit to Washington on May 5-8. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is also expected to join the trilateral talks.
Over the past week, the Pakistani military has gone on the offensive to push the Taliban out of Buner, a district just 60 miles from Islamabad, and said it has killed dozens of insurgents. Army spokesmen did not immediately respond to requests for updates Sunday.
Still, the North West Frontier Province government insists it is not abandoning the peace deal or the concept of dialogue.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the province's information minister, said Saturday that the formation of the appellate court — the Darul Qaza — meant the government was close to fulfilling its obligations. He said two judges have been appointed to the panel, and more will be named later.
Already a handful of judges trained in Islamic law, called qazis, have been hearing relatively routine disputes in Swat. Hussain said more such judges would be named throughout the rest of Malakand Division.
Pakistani officials insist that the deal has, at the very least, symbolic value. By carrying out their part of the agreement, they can gain more support from the public to take action against the Taliban if and when the militants violate the pact, they say.
Besides, a speedier justice system has long been a demand of local residents in Swat, where regular courts are corrupt and inefficient. It's a grievance Taliban militants exploited in their campaign there, one marked by beheadings and burnings of girls' schools over the past two years.
The new appellate court takes away justification for militants to keep fighting, Hussain said. "Now anyone carrying arms would be treated as a rebel and would be prosecuted in the qazi courts," he said.
But the announcement did not satisfy a hard-line cleric who has mediated the deal, said his spokesman. Amir Izzat Khan said the cleric, Sufi Muhammad, was supposed to be consulted on the makeup of the appeals court but was not.
"We reject this Darul Qaza and further consultation is on to discuss the future line of action," Khan said.
A good deal still remained unclear about the appellate court, including when it would start functioning and whether its decisions could be reviewed by Pakistan's Supreme Court — an institution that Muhammad rejects.
Asked about the Supreme Court's role, Hussain, the provincial minister, said: "The people of Malakand need not to go to anywhere to seek justice after the whole system is established right there."
The Taliban's infiltration of Buner has alarmed many in Pakistan about their ultimate intentions. Still, pushing the Taliban out of Buner does not mean the army is willing to try to oust them from the Swat Valley.
There were signs Sunday that the situation in Swat was deteriorating.
Armed men attacked the power grid in the main Swat city of Mingora with rockets overnight, depriving a large area of electricity, said Fazal Hussain, a senior official of the local power company. He would not speculate on the identity of the attackers.
Separately, suspected militants blew up a boys school in the Kabal area of the valley overnight. The building collapsed but no one was hurt, said Shakoor Khan, a local police officer.
Typically, the Swat Taliban have gone after girls' schools, but those for boys have also been targeted over the past two years.