Pakistan Cleric Meets With Militant Leader Over Highly Criticized Pact With Taliban

A hardline cleric sought Thursday to convince the Taliban to disarm under a pact with Pakistan's government that has been criticized at home and abroad as giving in to militants ravaging the country's northwest, a militant spokesman said.

Monday's deal allows for the imposition of Islamic law in the former tourist resort of Swat and surrounding districts in exchange for an end to a brutal insurgency that has killed hundreds and sent up to one third of the area's 1.5 million people fleeing.

Critics say the deal effectively cedes Swat to the Taliban and could embolden other militant groups challenging Pakistan's shaky secular government. But Pakistani officials say the deal is no concession, arguing that it addresses long-standing demands for a more efficient justice system in Swat and surrounding areas.

A similar deal in Swat last year collapsed in a few months and was blamed for giving insurgents time to regroup.

The cleric, Sufi Muhammad, met with the Swat Valley Taliban chief in an undisclosed location, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said. Leader Maulana Fazlullah is the son-in-law of Muhammad, an Islamist chief once imprisoned for sending his followers to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan but who has since publicly renounced violence.

"They are discussing how to ensure peace and how to ensure the provision of speedy justice" to the people, Khan said.

On Tuesday, a Pakistani TV reporter who had been covering a peace march by Muhammad and his supporters was shot and killed. Authorities have not named any suspects in the killing of Musa Khan Khel, 28, and neither has his employer, Geo TV.

Khan condemned the killing, saying that whoever did it wanted to "derail the peace process."

Over the last 18 months, militants have battled security forces, beheaded political opponents and burned scores of girls' schools in the Swat Valley, which lies near Pakistan's tribal regions — longtime Taliban and al-Qaida strongholds bordering Afghanistan.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister for the North West Frontier Province, visited Swat's main city of Mingora on Thursday and praised an earlier Taliban decision to observe a 10-day cease-fire.

He condemned the reporter's killing, warning that a "third hand" could be trying to disrupt the peace process. He did not explain, though the provincial government has rocky relations with the Pakistani army.

"The attack on a journalist is in fact an assault on the government," Hussain said.

The main legal changes under the pact would involve already existing regulations that were never enforced, for instance, allowing religious scholars to advise judges, officials said. They say the laws will not ban girls from school or introduce other hardline measures, as some Taliban fighters would want.

Officials say the laws will not be implemented until the militants have disarmed.

NATO and Britain have expressed concern over the pact, though the United States has avoided direct criticism, saying it needs more time to understand the deal's implications.

Washington may be wary of weakening an already fragile Pakistani government that it needs to help fight Islamic militants using Pakistan to stage attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

A successful peace deal in Swat could free up thousands of Pakistani security forces for missions closer to the Afghan frontier.