Pakistani Taliban observing unilateral ceasefire

(dpa) - Taliban militants in Pakistan's volatile north-west region bordering Afghanistan were observing a unilateral ceasefire with government forces, whom they had been fighting for more than six months.

The ceasefire announcement was made late Wednesday by a spokesman of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Taliban Movement of Pakistan), an umbrella group of more than two dozen pro-Taliban militant groups.

"The military has reduced actions against us, and therefore, we also announce a ceasefire as a goodwill gesture," Maulvi Omar, the organization's spokesman, said in a statement to the media. "We have said repeatedly that we will fight only those who wage war against us and not those who do not want to fight us."

The spokesman said the truce was for an indefinite period and would cover Pakistan's ungoverned tribal regions as well as the restive north-west Swat Valley, where government forces are currently clearing out armed Islamic militants who had taken control of the area in October.

Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander from the tribal district of South Waziristan, heads the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. He has been accused by the Pakistani government and US intelligence officials of masterminding the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto at a December 27 election campaign rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

After her slaying, Army and paramilitary forces backed by helicopter gunships, jet fighters and heavy artillery launched an operation against Mehsud, killing several dozen militants.

The military's chief spokesman brushed aside the ceasefire declaration, saying cold weather in the mountainous tribal districts likely led to a current lull in fighting.

However, a member of Pakistan's Senate, Saleh Shah, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in an exclusive interview that the government of embattled President Pervez Musharraf was holding back-door peace talks with the militants after realizing that a complete military victory was not possible.

Shah, a native of South Waziristan, is the member of a tribal jirga, or council, that is mediating between Mehsud and the government.

The government signed a peace deal with Mehsud in South Waziristan in 2004 and other militant groups in neighboring North Waziristan in September 2006, but both were scrapped by the militants after Army commandos stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque on July 10 to remove hundreds of militants holed up there.

Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz also told dpa that peace talks with militants in the tribal areas were in the cards.

Attacks on security forces, mostly suicide bombings, increased dramatically after the Red Mosque siege, not only in the tribal areas but also across Pakistan, including the capital Islamabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Karachi.

More than 700 people, many of them security personnel, were killed in more than 50 suicide bombings in 2007. Nearly 250 people have also died since New Year's Day in the bombing campaign.

Pakistan's tribal regions have become a sanctuary for al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters who fled to the area after US-backed forced invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, US officials have said.

The US director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, told a Senate panel Tuesday in Washington that al-Qaeda was gaining strength from safe havens inside the tribal areas under the protection of local Taliban warlords such as Mehsud and was improving its ability to recruit, train and position operatives to carry out attacks inside the United States.

The Islamabad government has defended itself against claims it is not doing enough to flush out the militants, noting that it has around 100,000 troops operating in the tribal belt.

"Pakistan has been facing challenges from al-Qaeda and the Taliban and working as an effective member in the war against terrorism and has sacrificed more than any other country," Mohammed Sadiq, a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a press briefing Wednesday.

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