(dpa) - The Pakistani government on Monday released the head of a banned Islamic organization as part of its peace talks with the militants in restive north-west valley of Swat, officials said.
Maulana Sufi Mohammed, chief of the banned Movement for the Enforcement of Mohammedan Law (TNSM), was released from a hospital in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) capital Peshawar, where he was moved months ago for medical treatment.
"The newly elected government of the Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan People's Party (PPP) have decided to release him in order to pursue the peace process and put an end to violence in the Malakand region," a senior official told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
Pakistan's new coalition government led by the PPP, the party of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, last month offered peace talks to the Islamic militants operating in the country's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and its nearby NWFP.
The move revised the heavy-handed policies of President Pervez Musharraf in dealing with the problem.
Authorities believe Mohammed could be used to convince his son-in- law, Maulana Fazlullah, a radical cleric whose followers have been fighting the security forces in the Swat region since late October for the enforcement of Taliban rule in the area, to shun militancy.
Hundreds of people, including security personnel, have been killed in the months of fighting.
Mohammed is a pro-Taliban militant, who took more than 10,000 TNSM fighters to Afghanistan to fight against US and Northern Alliance forces after the US invaded the country to oust the Taliban regime.
Hundreds of them were either killed in the fighting or imprisoned by the Northern Alliance in different parts of Afghanistan.
On January 15, 2002, Mohammed was arrested by security forces in the tribal district of Kurram Agency as he was crossing into Pakistan while leaving thousands of his supporters at the mercy of US and Northern Alliance forces.
Musharraf's government also imposed a ban on TNSM immediately afterwards and termed it a terrorist organization.
The organization was launched by Mohammed in 1992. Two years later, it demanded enforcement of a judicial system based on sharia, or Islamic law, and staged demonstrations in seven districts of Malakand, of which Swat is part.
Mohammed's heavily armed workers also occupied government buildings, blocked the main Peshawar-Mingora highway and killed a member of the provincial assembly along with scores of others in adjoining districts.
The Taliban also demanded the release of Mohammed together with some other of their leaders in exchange for Pakistani envoy Tariq Azizud-Din, who has been held by militants for the past few months.