PESHAWAR: February 16, 2009. (AFP) Pakistan and Islamic hardliners signed a deal to enforce sharia law in the northwest Swat valley on Monday, which authorities hope will usher in peace as a suspected US missile strike killed 22 people.
At least one missile fired by a suspected drone struck the Taliban centre in Bhagan, part of a remote mountain stronghold for the hardline movement which is waging a fierce insurgency across the border in Afghanistan.
"One missile fired by a suspected US drone destroyed the Taliban centre," a top Pakistani security official told AFP.
"The latest update from the area is that 22 people, mainly militants, were killed in the missile strike," said a second security official, who earlier said 18 people died.
The latest strike came as the government and Islamic hardliners signed the agreement to enforce sharia law in the northwestern Swat valley, where fighting has raged between militants and troops, a provincial minister said.
Militants announced a 10-day ceasefire in the valley on Sunday as a goodwill gesture while talks were held between the government of troubled North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and a local militant leader, Soofi Mohammad.
"Today an agreement has been signed between the government of NWFP and Maulana Soofi Mohammed," provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told reporters in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
"All laws against sharia will be abolished and sharia will be enforced under this justice system," he added.
There was no official word from the militants on the agreement, which the authorities hope will being peace to the troubled region. The deal on imposing sharia will cover the Malakand area, one of the districts of NWFP that includes the Swat valley.
"It is my hope that the armed people will disarm themselves, give up the path of violence and work for restoration of peace in Swat," said chief minister of NWFP Amir Haider Hoti.
Until two years ago, Swat was a jewel in the crown of Pakistani tourism, frequented by foreign and local holidaymakers escaping to the mountains for skiing in winter or cooler climes in the punishing heat of summer.
But the northwest region descended into chaos after radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah embarked on a terrifying campaign to enforce Taliban-style sharia law, prompting thousands of people to flee and suffocating day-to-day life.
Pakistan, under massive Western pressure to clamp down on extremists, has pressed military offensives in an attempt to flush out the militants and wrest back control of Swat, which locals say has fallen to the insurgents.
The suspected US drone attack was the first in Kurram, one of seven semi-autonomous tribal areas in Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, where the Taliban are fighting US-led, NATO and Western-backed Afghan forces.
One security official said most of the dead were Afghan Taliban fighters and that commanders had been staying at the hideout.
The centre was used to store weapons and lodge militants resting from bouts of fighting in Afghanistan. Local Taliban followers sealed off the area Monday.
The attack underscored vanished hopes in Pakistan that the administration of US President Barack Obama would review the policy and abandon what Islamabad has called a violation of its sovereignty.
On Saturday, at least 27 mainly Al-Qaeda foreign operatives were killed in a suspected US missile strike that destroyed a major Taliban training camp of top commander Baitullah Mehsud near the Afghan border.
Dozens of similar strikes since August have sparked government criticism of the United States, believed to be firing the missiles from CIA drones.
The lawless tribal areas have been wracked by violence since hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda rebels sought refuge in the region after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Washington has refused to acknowledge conducting missile strikes in Pakistan, but last week Senator Dianne Feinstein said US drones used to strike suspected insurgents in the country take off and land from a base in Pakistan. Pakistan rejects US and Afghan accusations that the government is not doing enoh to crack down on militants, who wage attacks across the border.