IHT : Taliban leader urges halt to violence and Pakistan government talks peace with key tribe

Friday, April 25, 2008

Taliban leader urges halt to violence and Pakistan government talks peace with key tribe

The Associated Press | April 25, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: A Taliban commander wanted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has urged his followers to halt violence as Pakistan's new government steps up peace talks in hopes of turning a rising tide of Islamic militancy.

Followers of Baitullah Mehsud, considered Pakistan's top Taliban commander, distributed fliers in his name around the lawless region on the Afghan border telling his supporters not to break a ban on acts of "hostility."

A copy of the flier obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday warned that those who disobeyed the order would be "strung upside down in public and punished."

Pakistan has enjoyed a monthlong respite from a wave of devastating suicide bombings blamed on Islamic militants that included the December assassination of Bhutto. The army and the militants have been observing an unofficial cease-fire for more than a month.

The lull follows the election of a new government which has vowed to negotiate with militants who renounce violence and sought to distance itself from the strong-arm tactics of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, whose influence is fading.

Zahid Khan, a senior official in one of the parties of the ruling coalition, said Thursday that government envoys were in talks with elders of the Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan. Mehsud is a member of the tribe, though Khan said there were no direct talks with him.

Khan gave no details about the possible terms of any agreement. Tribal elders could not be reached for comment Thursday.

"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 AP that militants across the region were ready for peace if the government met their demands to withdraw the army and release militant prisoners.

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

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

He exerts considerable influence in tracts of South Waziristan. Most of his followers are believed to be fellow tribesmen but allegedly include some foreign militants.

Mehsud has not been widely accused, however, of involvement in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Ikram Sehgal, a security analyst, said the government is trying to win over tribal leaders and smaller armed groups angered at Musharraf's deployment of the army in the region in order to isolate hard-liners such as Mehsud.

"The government is feeling its way forward to see whether a local arrangement can be made with militants and sign off on a deal that can separate them from the terrorists per se," Sehgal said.

"Whether this policy is prudent, carefully devised and can be successful, it's too early to tell."

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