ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A top Taliban leader in Pakistan with links to al-Qaida has ordered a cease-fire as part of a deal being negotiated with the country’s new government, according to Taliban and Pakistani officials.
Baitullah Mehsud, leader of one of Pakistan’s largest extremist forces, issued a pamphlet directing his fighters to end attacks on Pakistani security forces in the country’s troubled tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province, according to a spokesman for Mehsud’s Pakistani Taliban. Mehsud, who has been accused of masterminding the plot to kill former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, ordered the halt to extremist activities as part of an agreement that calls for prisoner exchanges and a withdrawal of Pakistani military forces from areas near the Afghan border.
“We have reached a final stage of an agreement with the Pakistani authorities for a peace deal,” said Maulvi Omar, spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistani officials familiar with the terms of the deal said, however, negotiations with extremists are ongoing.
Omar said Pakistani security forces have begun to withdraw from the restive tribal areas of North and South Waziristan as part of the accord. But Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, denied that troops had moved out of the region. “We have not received pullout orders from the government as yet. When they are received, we will follow the government’s order,” Abbas said.
A Pakistani official in Islamabad said the negotiations with Mehsud and other pro-Taliban fighters were handled by provincial government officials in the North-West Frontier in consultation with two of Pakistan’s top political leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif.
The move by Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its anti-terrorism efforts, has been received cautiously by U.S. officials here and has provoked skepticism from the White House. Under the leadership of President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan has previously brokered peace deals with extremists, but those deals have collapsed. Critics of the deals say they allowed Taliban and al-Qaida fighters to recruit and lead guerrilla operations across the Afghan border from safe havens in the remote tribal regions of North and South Waziristan. Last year, a 10-month cease-fire brokered by the Pakistani military collapsed after extremists launched an attack that killed 44 people in North Waziristan.
“We have been concerned about these types of approaches because we don’t think they work,” White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Wednesday in Washington.
CIA Director Michael Hayden has said his agency has concluded that pro-Taliban allies of Mehsud and al-Qaida were behind the suicide bombing that killed Bhutto in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in December. In March, Pakistani authorities filed formal charges against Mehsud and four other men accused of planning Bhutto’s killing. Mehsud has reportedly denied involvement.
Omar, the spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said the newly formed coalition government in Pakistan has accepted several of the extremists’ demands, including withdrawal of Pakistani security forces from the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, and an exchange of prisoners. The agreement also calls for compensation for the families of people killed in military operations in the region and a promise to cease arresting tribesmen suspected of ties to the Taliban or al-Qaida, Omar said.
“Everything has been decided, and now it’s a matter of few days and everybody will see the agreement very soon,” the Taliban spokesman said.
Omar vowed, however, to continue fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. “The presence of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is the mother of all ill and there will be no peace until their presence in the region has ended,” he said.
Pakistani officials in Islamabad have shied away from speaking publicly about the agreement with Mehsud or other extremists. But several officials acknowledged Thursday that talks were underway with Mehsud.
“We have formed different teams for talking with militants, including Baitullah Mehsud,” said Arshad Abdullah, provincial minister of law in the North-West Frontier.
Provincial government officials in the country’s North-West Frontier said the negotiations started several months before the secular Awami National Party was swept into power in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections on a promise to quell the violence that has rocked the region.
“We are not the architect of this agreement because it started months before our coming into power,” said Afrasiab Khattak, provincial head of the Awami National Party. “We are in touch with all and a peace deal is possible.”
Earlier this week, Pakistani authorities released another pro-Taliban leader as part of the broad deal reached between officials in the North-West Frontier and Islamic extremists in the region. Maulana Sufi Mohammed, the founder of one of Pakistan’s most extreme religious groups, was captured after leading fighters against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001.
Mohammed is the founder of Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammedi, also known as the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, which has recently fought the Pakistani military in the Swat Valley, which is about 100 miles north of Peshawar. The group is under the leadership of Mohammad’s son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.
While Mohammed has pledged to encourage his fighters to lay down their arms, Fazlullah this week vowed to continue attacks on government forces and to push for the enforcement of Islamic law in Swat.