Reporter shot after peace rally in Pakistan

February 18, 2009 8:11:12 AM PST
Gunmen killed a television reporter Wednesday hours after he covered a peace march led by a hard-line cleric aimed at convincing militants in the Swat Valley to lay down their weapons under a pact with the government, the victim's employer said. It was unclear who shot Musa Khan Khel, but the incident shows that Swat remains a dangerous region despite Monday's truce agreement, which NATO has warned risks giving the Taliban a "safe haven" in the former tourist region.

Reporters have often been killed or kidnapped in northwest Pakistan in circumstances that are rarely investigated. Journalists there say they face threats from both militants and members of the security forces and have to be very careful on what and how they report.

Geo television, Pakistan's most popular news channel, reported that its reporter Khel's bullet-ridden body was found close to the town of Matta. It gave no more details.

Hours earlier, Khel had arrived in the town after filing reports on Geo about a peace march to the town by Sufi Muhammad - an aging pro-Taliban cleric who is father-in-law to Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah - and hundreds of his supporters.

On Monday, the regional government in Pakistan's northwest struck a deal with Muhammad in which he agreed to persuade Fazlullah to give up arms in return for the pledge to introduce a system of Islamic law in the valley, where militants have routed the police, beheaded political opponents and burned scores of schools for girls.

Muhammad has said he hopes to meet with Fazlullah soon. The march was aimed at rallying support for his efforts.

Fighting between security forces and militants has killed hundreds of people in Swat over the past year, while up to a third of the valley's 1.5 million people have fled. The region lies next to Pakistan's tribal regions close to the Afghan border, where Taliban and al-Qaida militants have long held sway.

Pakistani officials insist the deal is not a concession, but rather that it addresses the long-standing demands of residents in Swat and surrounding areas for a more efficient justice system. They say the laws will not be implemented until the militants have disarmed.

The main changes would involve already existing regulations that were never enforced, for instance, allowing religious scholars to advise judges, officials said. There are no publicized plans to ban girls from schooling or introduce other hardline measures, as some Taliban fighters would want.

"We will not introduce the Taliban system here," Bashir Bilour, a senior provincial government leader, said Wednesday. "This is a system about justice. It is for producing swift justice."

While Britain and NATO have said they are concerned by the deal, the United States has been muted in its criticism.

When pressed by reporters at the State Department on Tuesday spokesman Gordon Duguid said the U.S. was seeking a "fuller explanation" from Pakistan.

"As I understand it, Islamic law is within the constitutional framework of Pakistan," he added. "So I don't know that that is particularly an issue for anyone outside of Pakistan to discuss."

The U.S. response was a sign the new administration is wary about weakening an already fragile Pakistani government that Washington needs to help fight Islamic militants using Pakistan to stage attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

A similar deal in Swat last year collapsed in a few months and was blamed for giving insurgents time to regroup.

Some 2,000 militants are believed to operate in the valley. In defiance of some 10,000 paramilitary and army troops, they have already set up their own courts, meting out punishments in line with an exceptionally harsh brand of Islamic law.

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