Page last updated at 14:10 GMT, Tuesday, 22 April 2008 15:10 UK

Pakistan Taleban praise release

Pakistani militants loyal to pro-Taleban cleric Mullah Fazlullah at Matta in Swat district (file photo)
Many of the militants are linked to al-Qaeda and the Taleban

A spokesman for Taleban fighters in Pakistan has welcomed the release of a well-known militant leader.

On Monday night the authorities set free Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the founder of an outlawed Islamist group that has fought in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He was released under an agreement to renounce violence and help restore peace in the north-west valley of Swat.

Pakistan's new government is trying to deal with Islamic militancy through dialogue and development.

Sharia demand

Sufi Muhammad was released from prison hospital after nearly seven years in detention.

Map of Swat region

He was arrested in 2001 while returning from Afghanistan where he had led his poorly armed followers into battle against coalition forces.

He is the head of the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM) movement that demands the enforcement of Islamic law in the Swat valley.

While he was in prison his more radical son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, assumed control of the group and took up arms against the state.

Hundreds of people welcomed Sufi Mohammad when he returned to the TNSM headquarters on Tuesday in the district of Malakand in Swat.

He told the crown that he had "signed an agreement with the government so that we can peacefully work for the enforcement of Sharia in our area".

According to an official statement, the agreement commits the TNSM to renounce violence in the Swat valley where the army has been engaged in an intense struggle with militants.

Under one clause of the agreement, The TNSM declares that the killing of police, military or other government employees is "un-Islamic".

Negotiations over Sufi Muhammad's release began some months ago.

It is not clear, though, whether the sick and elderly man still has the authority to bring his rebellious movement into line. Some observers say that he is a spent force.

Observers predict a confrontation with his son-in-law if he tries to do so.

"We welcome his release, it is a positive development and augurs well for peace in the area," Taleban spokesman Maulvi Omar said.

The militants are also observing an unofficial ceasefire to facilitate talks.

But the BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad says their terms for a lasting peace are tough.

They want President Pervez Musharraf to stand down and they are demanding that the government abandon its pro-American policy and implement Islamic law in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

They are also committed to continuing their fight against Nato in Afghanistan.

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