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Militants Dispute Pakistan Government Creating Islamic Courts

Authorities in Pakistan have announced the creation of an Islamic court in a troubled northwestern region as part of a controversial peace deal aimed at ending militancy there. But a pro-Taliban hard-line cleric, who mediated the deal on behalf of the militants, has dismissed the announcement by saying the government could not have set up the court and appointed judges without consulting him.

The seven districts of Pakistan's northwestern Malakand Division have seen some of the country's worst militant violence in the past year, particularly in the Swat region that is mostly controlled by the Taliban.

In an attempt to end the violence, the government agreed to set up Islamic courts in the militant-dominated area as part of a peace deal it signed in February with pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammad. In return, the cleric promised to persuade Taliban militants to lay down their arms and allow the government to establish its authority.

After holding several rounds talks with Sufi Mohammad, information minister for Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, Iftikhar Hussain, announced late Saturday the provincial government has set up an Islamic appellate court and appointed two senior judges to serve on it.

The minister said the government has fulfilled its promise and a major demand of the Taliban has been met. But he warned if the militants take up arms again they will be stopped at all cost.

But Sufi Mohammed immediately rejected the announcement. His spokesman, Ameer Ezat, tells VOA the government alone is not competent to appoint judges without consulting Mohammed as the top cleric.

He also said the government ignored the militant's major demand of putting an end to the ongoing military offensive in some districts before setting up the court. Without meeting these conditions, Ezat says, the Taliban will not lay down arms.

Provincial authorities maintain individuals or groups cannot be involved in the process of appointing judges. Authorities also say anti-insurgency operations will continue in areas where Taliban militants challenge government authority and launch attacks on civilian as well as official targets.

The major military offensive is taking place in the districts of Dir and Buner, just 100 kilomoters from the Pakistani capital. Authorities maintain that in violation of the Swat peace deal, several hundred Taliban militants have infiltrated the districts and security forces are battling them to clear the area.

Military officials say more than 200 militants have been killed in the weeklong fighting, which has forced tens of thousands of families to flee to safer areas.

Regional military commander Brigadier Fayyaz Mehmood told reporters at least 21 suspected suicide attackers were also among the militants killed.

"The maximum threat has been eliminated and the best thing this time has been that, it is not that the miscreants have tried to escape, we have closed the pockets on both sides and then we took the miscreants, rather we attracted them, to our troops and they came and [the] maximum have been killed," Mehmood said.

Critics both at home and abroad say the Swat peace deal followed by a major military offensive underscores indecision in Pakistan's government about how to tackle rising militancy in its northwestern regions, including areas that border Afghanistan.

Officials say President Asif Ali Zardari is traveling to Washington to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama this week and the worsening security situation in Pakistan will top the agenda.