Pakistani government and Islamic militants agree on prisoner swap

May 14th, 2008 - 10:18 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Pervez Musharraf
Islamabad, May 14 (DPA) The government and Islamic militants were set to exchange dozens of prisoners Wednesday ahead of a formal peace deal between the sides in Pakistan’s restive tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, media reports said. The prisoner’s swap was agreed to between the militant commander Baitullah Mehsud and the tribal elders, who are holding negotiations on behalf of the government in South Waziristan.

The government will release 32 suspected militants while the rebels have pledged to free 55 security personnel seized from various areas of the North-West Frontier Province and the tribal region over the last six months, Geo news channel other media outlets reported.

However, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas denied that any militants were being freed.

“What is happening is that locals who may have been detained on suspicion without any strong evidence are being considered for release by the authorities. But the military is not involved in that,” Abbas told English language daily Dawn.

The exchange of prisoners would be followed by a peace deal between the government and the local Taliban. An official told the newspaper that a formal agreement could come about in three to four days.

Under the deal, the military would carry out a partial troop withdrawal in South Waziristan, which is believed to have safe havens for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters launching cross border attacks in Afghanistan, Aaj TV said.

Pakistan’s new government last month opened peace talks with the country’s umbrella militant group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that is headed by Mehsud, in a revision of hard-handed policies of President Pervez Musharraf in dealing with the rising Islamic militancy in NWFP and the tribal region.

But the parleys broke down April 28 when the government refused to pull troops out from South Waziristan. These were resumed immediately afterwards on the intervention of tribal interlocutors.

The government’s previous peace deals in the tribal belt failed last year, giving opportunity to the militants to regroup and strike back with even more force.

More than 1,000 people, including security personnel, have been killed in suicide bombings across the country over the last 14 months.

Islamabad’s contacts with tribal militants have concerned Washington as it leads the international fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said earlier this month that his country expected “Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership to be strong partners against violent extremists in Pakistan’s frontier areas.”

“Let me be clear,” he added, “we will not be satisfied until all the violent extremism emanating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is brought under control.”

Meanwhile, the NWFP government claimed on Tuesday a breakthrough in the second round of talks with the followers of radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah who has been fighting the government forces in the province’s Swat district since October.

The rebels announced an extension of a ceasefire they reached with the government in the first round held May 9. In return, the authorities partially accepted their demand to allow Islamic Sharia in the region.

“The government has accepted Taliban’s demand for enforcement of Shari Nizam-i-Adl Regulation (Islamic Judicial System Regulation) in the Malakand region, including Swat, within a month,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a senior leader of liberal Awami National Party, which leads the provincial government in NWFP.

Under the law, the religious scholars would offer guidance to the courts.

Violence swept through Swat late last year when the military launched an offensive against Fazlullah, whose men took control of key towns in the district and enforced self-defined Mohammedan laws.

Fighting between the militants and government troops continued for several weeks, leaving hundreds of people dead.

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