The top leader of pro-Taliban militants in Pakistan has directed his comrades "to immediately cease their activities" as the government inches toward signing a peace accord with the rebels, media reports said Thursday.
Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the country's umbrella militant group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), issued the orders Wednesday in pamphlets, reported the dpa.
"He has warned that his directives should be complied with and those violating them will be publicly punished," read the order, which was published in several newspapers.
The statement came a day after media reports suggested Pakistan's new government had drafted a peace agreement to be signed soon with the militants in Pakistan's restive tribal district of South Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan, where Mehsud is entrenched with his thousands of followers.
The militant leader is believed to have close links with the al-Qaeda terrorist network. He was also blamed for ordering the December 27 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose Pakistan People's Party now leads the government following February elections.
Under the proposed peace deal, pro-Taliban militants would put an end to attacks on security forces while regular government troops would gradually be withdrawn from the region, the English-language newspaper Dawn reported Wednesday after viewing the draft agreement.
The plan requires local tribesmen to expel all foreign militants within one month and pledge not to give them shelter in future in their territory, where they fled after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Dawn, citing unnamed knowledgeable sources, reported that the draft peace accord has been approved by the leadership of the coalition government, which announced last month it would revise President Pervez Musharraf's tough stance on dealing with Pakistan's rising militancy.
The tribal elders of South Waziristan were to sign the agreement on the behalf of local militants. The signing was expected to take place Thursday, the Aaj news channel reported.
The proposed agreement was silent on whether the pro-Taliban militants were required to halt cross-border raids on NATO-led international forces in Afghanistan, a matter of great concern for the United States and its allies there.
"We are concerned about it," White House spokesman Dana Perino said Wednesday, "and what we encourage them to do is to continue to fight against the terrorists and do not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there."
However, Pakistan's military has already started to pull out from South Waziristan, TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar told Dawn.
Major General Athar Abbas, an Army spokesman, denied the claim, saying: "No, not yet. So far, we have not received any orders to this effect from the government."
Analysts said Pakistan's halting of military operations against militants in Waziristan could trigger tensions with NATO and the Afghan Army on the border. The United States has repeatedly threatened that its forces could take action against insurgents on Pakistani soil.
On Wednesday, Afghan troops targeted a Pakistan border post as they chased militants after a raid. One Pakistani soldier was killed and another injured. Some media reports said NATO forces bombarded the area after the incident, leaving four civilians dead.
Pakistan has its reasons for the peace agreement with the pro-Taliban fighters as it has seen intensified attacks on its security forces across the country over the past 14 months. More than 1,000 security personnel and hundreds of civilians have died in the suicide bombing campaign.