PESHAWAR, Pakistan, (Reuters) – An al Qaeda-linked militant commander has ordered his followers to stop attacks in Pakistan after the new government began peace talks, a government official said on Thursday.
Pakistan’s new government that emerged from a February general election has promised to pursue negotiations in a bid to end a tide of militant violence in which hundreds of people have been killed since the middle of last year. But the prospect of peace pacts with militants based in lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border has raised concern as critics say deals only give militants the opportunity to re-group and intensify their attacks in Afghanistan.
With talks under way, Baitullah Mehsud, a militant leader accused of organising the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December, has put out word to his followers to cease attacks in Pakistan.
“All members of Tehrik-e-Taliban are ordered by Baitullah Mehsud that a ban is imposed on provocative activities for the sake of peace,” the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or Movement of Taliban, said in a leaflet distributed in the South Waziristan region and nearby towns close to the Afghan border.
The group is a umbrella organisation, formed last year, of various militant groups based in Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun border lands, and led by Mehsud.
A military spokesman declined to comment on the ceasefire or the talks, saying the government was handling them, but he denied a militant claim that government troops had begun pulling back from positions in South Waziristan.
The top Interior Ministry official, Rehman Malik, welcomed the ceasefire: “If he’s said it, we welcome it. We should welcome any good step,” Malik told reporters, adding that Mehsud had denied killing Bhutto.
The militant group said in the leaflets anyone who defied the ceasefire order would be strung up in public, according to a copy obtained by Reuters.
A government official based in the northwest confirmed the leaflets announcing the ceasefire were issued by Mehsud’s group. “It’s a confidence-building measure, part of the peace process that has begun with local militants,” said the government official, who declined to be identified.
The new coalition government, led by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, has started negotiations in a bid to break with the policies of President Pervez Musharraf, whose strategies, ranged from military action to appeasement.
Musharraf’s support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism is deeply unpopular and many Pakistanis say it has only incited militant violence.
Authorities have struck pacts with militants in both South and North Waziristan in recent years. The deals brought about a temporary fall-off in violence in some parts of Pakistan but were also meant to stop attacks into Afghanistan. However, critics, including U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, said the deals let the militants regroup and plot on the Pakistani side of the border and intensify their attacks across it into Afghanistan.
Information minister in North West Frontier Province, Iftikhar Hussain, acknowledged U.S. and other Western concerns, given the failure of previous pacts, but said he was sure this one would eventually succeed. “It’ll take time, they must trust us,” he said.
Earlier, Mehsud’s spokesman, Maulvi Omar, said the talks with the government were making progress. “Talks are going well and the two sides have fulfilled their promises,” Omar said by telephone from an undisclosed location, referring to the release of some detained militants.
On Monday, the government freed Sufi Mohammad, a radical cleric who sent thousands of militants to Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces who overthrew the Taliban in 2001. He had been in detention since 2002.
A security analyst was sceptical talks would bring lasting peace. “They can bring a lull but they are unlikely to work unless the militants agree to lay down their arms,” said Mahmood Shah, a former government security chief in the border areas.
On Thursday, authorities in North Waziristan found the body of a man with a note accusing him of spying for U.S forces in Afghanistan, a security official said.