MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities freed two Taliban fighters in exchange for an official kidnapped in Swat valley, where the government is seeking peace by offering to allow Islamic sharia law, a militant spokesman said.
“We have released the official and his six guards in exchange for our two colleagues,” Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the Taliban told Reuters late on Sunday.
Syed Mohammad Jawed, commissioner for the Malakand division which includes Swat, confirmed the official and his guards had been freed but refused to comment on any swap.
Taliban fighters kidnapped the official on Sunday, after two of their comrades had been arrested in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, a day earlier.
The Taliban complained that the arrests had violated their conditions for ordering a 10-day ceasefire in Swat on February 15.
The government has backed a deal with radical cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammad to restore Islamic law to Swat and neighboring regions if he could persuade the Taliban to give up fighting.
A senior government official said on Saturday Taliban fighters and Pakistani officials had agreed to a “permanent ceasefire” in Swat.
But Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, who is Sufi Mohammad’s son-in-law, said there would be a decision announced once the current temporary ceasefire expires in the middle of this week.
Around 1,200 people have been killed and 250,000 to 500,000 have fled Swat valley since violence erupted in mid-2007.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi left for Washington today for consultations with U.S. and Afghan officials for a review of the security strategy for the region.
U.S. officials have expressed unease over the Pakistani approach to pacifying Swat, which some critics say could result in the creation of another sanctuary for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan.
Critics also say the offer of Islamic law for the region is at odds with the results of the election a year ago, which resulted in victory for a secular ethnic Pashtun party and the heavy defeat of Islamist parties.
Elsewhere in the northwest, Taliban factions cemented an alliance under the banner of the Shura Itehad-ul-Mujahideen, or Council of the Mujahideen Alliance, according to an Urdu language pamphlet distributed in the North Waziristan tribal region.
The alliance was forged between Hafiz Gul Bhadar, a Taliban commander in North Waziristan, and Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban based in South Waziristan.
Another member of the alliance was Maulvi Nazir Ahmed, a commander who had been regarded as pro-government after his men had earlier turned against Central Asian militants based in South Waziristan.
Reporting by Junaid Khan, Writing Augustine Anthony; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Bill Tarrant