ISLAMABAD (Reuters)- Taliban militants fighting Pakistani troops near the Afghan border declared a ceasefire on Wednesday but a military spokesman said that while fighting had died down no truce had been agreed.
But in a setback for Pakistani forces, a general commanding operations against the Taliban fighters in South Waziristan was killed along with seven others in a helicopter crash on Wednesday but the military spokesman said it was probably an accident.
“There is no report of any fire from the area or any sabotage activity,” Major-General Athar Abbas said, adding the pilot had reported a technical fault. There was no sign of any militant activity, Abbas said.
A spokesman for the militants said a decision to call a ceasefire was taken at a shura, or council meeting, chaired by Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and a prime suspect in the assassination of pro-Western opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in late December.
“The government has shown leniency over the past four or five days,” Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, told Reuters by telephone.
“That’s why we are declaring a ceasefire.”
Abbas described it as no more than a lull.
“As the miscreants have stopped attacking and firing, so there is a pause,” Abbas said. “But the operation will continue.”
Several senior officers, including two brigadiers, were killed in the crash along with Major-General Javed Sultan, commander of forces in the Kohat region, which South Waziristan falls under.
Nearly 300 people have died in militant-related violence since the start of the year, including six killed on Monday when a suicide bomber rammed his motorcycle into a military bus near army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the garrison town next door to the capital, Islamabad.
Growing insecurity has raised fears about nuclear-armed Pakistan’s stability as it heads towards an election on February 18 that was delayed after Bhutto’s assassination.
The Waziristan region is regarded as a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants who fled there after U.S.-led forces ousted them from Afghanistan in late 2001.
Pakistani troops have been trying for years, with varying degrees of success, to clear these areas of militants, who also attack Western and Afghan government troops across the border.