MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) - A radical cleric at the vanguard of a struggle for Islamic law in Pakistan’s restive Swat valley led a “peace march” on Wednesday to ask the Taliban to stop fighting, two days after he struck a deal with the government.
Maulana Sufi Mohammad was freed last year after spending six years in prison for leading thousands of fighters to Afghanistan in a vain bid to help the Taliban repel U.S.-backed forces.
“I ask you to remain peaceful. We have reached an agreement with the provincial government and Nizam-e-Adl (Islamic system of justice) will soon be enforced here,” Mohammad told several thousand followers gathered in Mingora, the main town in Swat.
“People will soon start getting justice and there will be a durable peace,” he said as an army vehicle with a mounted machine gun patrolled the town’s central bazaar.
Mohammad led an armed uprising in 1994 for the restoration of sharia, Islamic law, in Swat, and again challenged authorities in 1999 with protests over the government’s failure to honour agreements, but he forsook militancy after his release last year.
Bespectacled with a snow white beard and henna-tinted hair poking from beneath his black turban, Mohammad strode through the town followed by supporters, many waving black and white flags.
The marchers, most also wearing black turbans, later drove to meet Taliban leaders at their stronghold in the village of Matta, some 18 km away.
“Maulana Sufi Mohammad’s presence here is a blessing for the people of Swat as we can now hope for peace in the valley,” said Zahoor Ahmed, a farmer who had come to town to join the rally.
No-one carried weapons and there were no signs of any security for the march, though vehicles entering Mingora were checked by masked Taliban fighters.
U.S. officials have privately expressed dismay to Pakistani officials over the decision to concede to the Islamists’ demands for sharia, although in practise the laws are unlikely to be applied severely as there are no new judges being appointed.
They fear it will encourage the Taliban to believe militancy will succeed both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where President Barack Obama is sending more U.S. troops.
But Pakistan is already fighting militants on several fronts, and officials say compromising with Mohammad was the best option to pacify Swat, at least.
The civilian leaders, elected a year ago in a vote ending more than eight years of rule under former army chief general Pervez Musharraf, inherited a state struggling to hold back Islamist insurgencies across the northwest.
The government freed Mohammad in the hope the old rebel would persuade his even more radical son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, to halt an insurrection that began in late 2007.
Between 250,000 and 500,000 people have fled Swat since Fazlullah launched a campaign of violence, and at least 1,200 civilians have been killed in the former tourist paradise just 130 km (80 miles) from Islamabad.
President Asif Ali Zardari will only sign off on the deal to implement an Islamic system of justice across the Malakand division of North West Frontier Province, which includes Swat, if peace is genuinely restored, aides said.
The Taliban announced a 10-day ceasefire the night before Mohammad’s representatives struck a deal with the provincial government of North West Frontier Province.
The exodus of families from Swat accelerated in mid-2008 as an earlier peace deal fell apart and the Taliban took more control. The Taliban began exercising summary executions and campaigned against female education by torching girls’ schools.
Some people doubt whether Mohammad can rein in Fazlullah for long, as the younger man is believed to have fallen under the influence of other Taliban factions and al Qaeda.
“These people do not belong here, they are not our people, they are outsiders,” said Shahbir Ahmed, a building materials salesman, brave enough to speak out against the militants.
“I don’t think the peace accord will really bring peace.”
Additional reporting by Junaid Khan