Pakistan tourist valley hopes pact brings peace
MINGORA, Pakistan - Pakistanis in a northwestern tourist valley welcomed on Thursday a peace pact with militants who tried to impose Taliban rule, though some wary residents had doubts the violence would end.
Authorities announced on Wednesday they had struck a peace deal with Taliban militants in the Swat Valley. The government vowed to introduce sharia law and gradually withdraw troops, while the militants promised to stop attacks.
"We want peace. We want our businesses to run smoothly. Over the past year, we haven't seen any tourists in our areas, but I doubt it'll work," said Arif Khan, who runs a car rental business in the valley's main town of Mingora.
The Swat Valley, several hours drive on mountain roads from the capital, Islamabad, was until last year a prime tourist destination with ancient Buddhist ruins, a golf course, trout steams and the country's only ski resort.
But last year, militants appeared and began to enforce their brand of hardline rule.
Led by a young, charismatic cleric called Fazlullah, the well-armed militants, many veterans of Afghan fighting, attacked police, closed girls schools and video shops and tried to destroy Buddhist ruins.
Frightened police disappeared when challenged and soon the gunmen held sway over a string of towns along the Swat river. In November, the army launched an offensive to clear them out.
Hundreds of people have been killed in fighting and suicide bomb attacks.
Senior valley police official Waqif Khan said he and his men would be only too relieved if the pact ended the bloodshed.
"I and my men will be very happy if peace returns as we've suffered the maximum losses," he said.
Under the pact, militias are banned, militants from outside the area will be handed to the authorities, guns will be banned from open display and the militants will not try to stop health teams inoculating children or girls from school.
"It's a very good development," said school principal Mohammad Shoaib Khan.
"The militants have targeted girls' schools in particular and our female students have been really scared and reluctant to go to school," Khan said while shopping in a crowded market.
"If the agreement is fully implemented if will be a great for education in our region."
Humayun Khan, 45, who owns a mobile phone shop that was damaged by a bomb two months ago, said the pact was a ray of hope.
"War doesn't solve anything. If people are sincere in implementing this accord, it will bring peace and help revive business," Khan said.
Pakistan has cut similar peace deals in the past but critics, including Western allies, have complained they have merely allowed militants to regroup and plot more violence.
The United States was reserving judgement on the Swat pact and did not want militants to be able to use any part of Pakistan to launch violence at home or abroad, a U.S. State Department spokesman said on Wednesday.
Lawyer Fazl-e-Gafoor, president of the valley's bar association was gloomy.
"I don't think the accord will succeed," Gafoor said while sitting with colleagues in his small office in Mingora.
"These laws can't be implemented, they just create more confusion," he said of the government pledge to introduce sharia law. "It's just a cosmetic change not a concrete solution."