PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) – The government agreed to impose Islamic law and suspend a military offensive across much of northwest Pakistan on Monday in concessions aimed at pacifying the Taliban insurgency spreading from the border region to the country’s interior.
The announcement came as three missiles believed fired from a U.S. drone aircraft destroyed a house used by a local Taliban commander elsewhere in the northwest, killing 30 people, witnesses said.
The cease-fire, in Pakistan’s Swat Valley hundreds of miles from the missile strike in Kurram, will likely concern the United States, which has warned Pakistan that such peace agreements allow al-Qaida and Taliban militants operating near the Afghan border time to rearm and regroup.
The truce announcement came after talks with local Islamists, including one closely linked to the Taliban.
Speaking in India, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said the unrest in Swat was a reminder that the United States, Pakistan and India face an “an enemy which poses direct threats to our leadership, our capitals and our people.”
Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister for the North West Frontier Province, said authorities would impose Islamic law in Malakand region, which includes the Swat Valley. Swat is a one-time tourist haven in the northwest where extremists have gained sway through brutal tactics including beheading residents, burning girls’ schools and attacking security forces.
He said the laws would only be implemented when the valley was peaceful.
The Swat Taliban said Sunday they would observe a 10-day cease-fire in support of the peace process. They welcomed Monday’s announcement, which did not mention any need for the militants to give up arms.
“Our whole struggle is for the enforcement of Shariah (Islamic) law,” Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said.
Hoti gave few details, but said the main changes were included in existing laws stipulating Islamic justice that have never been enforced. They allow for Muslim clerics to advise judges when hearing cases, but do not ban female education or mention other strict interpretations of Shariah espoused by the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Hoti said that troops in Swat, which had been conducting an offensive there against the militants, would now go on “reactive mode” and retaliate only if attacked.
Pakistani military officials were not immediately available for comment.
The missile attack Monday was the first known such strike in Kurram. Most of the strikes have occurred in South and North Waziristan, other tribal regions considered major Taliban and al-Qaida strongholds.
The United States has stepped up missile strikes in the border region since August, killing some suspected top militants. Pakistan routinely protest the strikes, saying it undercuts its fight against terror.
Regaining the Swat Valley from militants is a major test for the Pakistani government.
Among those Islamists taking part in talks with the government in the provincial capital Peshawar was Sufi Muhammad, who Pakistan freed last year after he agreed to renounce violence.
Hoti said Muhammad had agreed to travel to Swat and urge the militants to give up their arms.
“Seeing the trend we can hope peace will soon be restored in Swat,” he said.