Taliban halts attacks in Pakistan

April 24, 2008 5:39:13 PM PDT
The top Taliban commander in Pakistan called a cease-fire Thursday and ordered followers to halt attacks, while the government said it was pursuing peace talks with tribal elders in the volatile border region. Fliers distributed on the Afghan frontier and in nearby towns told those loyal to Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander accused of ties to al-Qaida, to avoid acts of "hostility."

A copy obtained by The Associated Press said those carrying out attacks would be "strung upside down in public and punished."

The orders were handed out as Pakistan's new government stepped up talks designed to turn back a rising tide of Islamic militancy.

Zahid Khan, a senior politician in the ruling coalition, said government envoys were holding peace talks with elders of the Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan. Mehsud, who has been accused in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is a member of the tribe.

Khan offered no details about the possible terms of a deal.

Tribal elders could not be reached for comment.

Pakistan has enjoyed a monthlong respite from a wave of suicide bombings blamed on Islamic militants that included Bhutto's assassination in December.

The lull follows the election of a new government which has promised to negotiate with militants who renounce violence and has sought to distance itself from the military tactics of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.

U.S. officials have voiced some support for the initiative, while urging the government to exclude Taliban and al-Qaida figures suspected of orchestrating attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan - and perhaps plotting terrorist attacks in the West.

Khan said there were no direct talks with Mehsud, but elders from the tribe will be responsible for any violence in their areas under a British colonial-era legal system in force in Pakistan's seven semiautonomous tribal agencies.

"We will ensure that all people from this tribe respect and abide by an agreement which we might reach with them," Khan said.

Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for Mehsud, told the AP that militants across the region were ready for peace if the government withdraws the army and frees militant prisoners.

The government has ruled out negotiations with groups its considers terrorists. Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said there has been no order to pull back.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik welcomed the cease-fire called by Mehsud.

Mehsud is wanted for a string of suicide attacks in Pakistan, and the previous government accused him of involvement in Bhutto's assassination. He has reportedly denied it.

The Taliban leader exerts considerable influence in parts of South Waziristan. Most of his followers are believed to be fellow tribesmen; some are allegedly foreign militants.

Mehsud has not been widely accused of involvement in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Ikram Sehgal, a security analyst and newspaper commentator, said the government was trying to win over tribal leaders and smaller armed groups to isolate hard-liners such as Mehsud.

He said Mehsud's call for a cease-fire was an attempt to muddy the divide and buy time.

"The government is feeling its way forward to see whether a local arrangement can be made with militants ... that can separate them from the terrorists," Sehgal said. "Whether this policy is prudent, carefully devised and can be successful, it's too early to tell."

Khan, a leader of the Awami National Party, was involved in talks that resulted in the release this week of Sufi Muhammad, a pro-Taliban cleric.

The government of the North West Frontier Province said Muhammad's group signed a pact renouncing violence in return for being allowed to peacefully campaign for Islamic law in the Swat Valley and neighboring areas.

--- Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mahsud, Riaz Khan and Stephen Graham contributed to this report.


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