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Pakistani Taliban expand influence beyond Swat

They swarmed the neighboring district of Buner and secured the right to preach in mosques there.

By Huma YusufContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 2009

Supporters of Sufi Muhammad, the hard-line cleric who negotiated a peace deal between the Taliban and the government, listen to him speak in Mingora, the capital of Swat.

B.K. Bangash/AP/FILE

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Karachi, Pakistan

In the same week that the Pakistani Taliban secured their demand for Islamic law in the Swat Valley, they moved into a neighboring district and won the right to preach in mosques there. This success in Buner came with little fighting – unlike in Swat, where they'd battled government forces on and off since 2007.

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The move suggests that the Taliban, having gained a foothold in Swat, intend to spread their influence more broadly in Pakistan – and may face little resistance in some areas.

This continues their expansion beyond their stronghold in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where Swat and Buner are located. The two areas lie about 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital. Already, suicide bombings there and in nearby Lahore have grown more frequent over the past several months.

In Buner, resistance crumbles fast

Residents in Buner initially fought the incoming Taliban last week by forming a lashkar, or tribal militia. According to newspaper reports, they killed 20 militants. But they soon found themselves outnumbered as hundreds more Taliban fighters swarmed the area.

Buner tribal elders met with Taliban representatives twice in the past week at a jirga, or council. They guaranteed the militants the right to preach in mosques, as long as they did not threaten local residents or their property. The fighters agreed to leave by last Friday.

But that promise remains unfulfilled. Although more than 100 had departed as of Monday, armed Taliban militants are still roaming freely through marketplaces and mingling with local tribesmen, says Abdur Rahman Abid, a journalist based in Sultanwas, a village in Buner. "They say, 'We're here on the orders of our [leader], and we can do as we please if it helps implement sharia [Islamic law],' " Mr. Abid says.

Government officials say they can't prevent the peaceful entrenchment of the Taliban in Buner. "If a tribe invites a religious group to preach in their mosque, there's nothing we can do about it," says Haji Adeel, senior vice president of the Awami National Party (ANP), the secular political party that heads the NWFP provincial government.