Battle-weary residents welcomed a pro-Taliban cleric dispatched by the government on Tuesday to convince militants in the former tourist haven of Swat to stop fighting in exchange for the imposition of Islamic law and suspension of military offensives there.
Sufi Muhammad arrived in a caravan of some 300 vehicles in Swat Valleys main city of Mingora a day after he struck the truce,which a US defence official called negative and critics said represented a surrender to extremists fanning out from nearby strongholds close to the Afghan border.
In Brussels,a spokesman for NATO,which heads the force battling Taliban in Afghanistan,expressed concern over the deal. We would all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have safe haven, James Appathurai said.
But Sufi Muhammad said the deal would work. We will open dialogue with Taliban. We will ask them to lay down weapons. We are hopeful that they will not let us down.
Residents lined the route,waving and shouting Long live peace! Long live Islam!
Extremists in Swat have beheaded opponents and torched scores of girls schools in recent months,while gunbattles between security forces and militants killed hundreds. Up to a third of the valleys 1.5 million people have fled and the area is now believed to be mostly under militant control.
The provincial government in northwest Pakistan announced the deal on Monday after it met Islamists led by Muhammad,who has long demanded that Islamic,or Shariah,law be followed in this area. As part of the deal Muhammad agreed to travel to Swat and discuss peace with Maulana Fazlullah,the leader of the Swat Taliban and Muhammads son-in-law.
Also on Tuesday,a car bomb exploded near the residence of a local government official,killing three people on the outskirts of Peshawar. The official was trying to raise a militia to fight the Taliban.
Meanwhile in Tokyo,US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that extremist elements in Pakistan pose a direct threat to Islamabad,the US and other nations. On the truce,Clinton said she needed to learn more about the issue before commenting on it.