KOTKAI, Pakistan, (Reuters) – The leader of the Pakistani Taliban vowed on Saturday to carry on fighting NATO and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan regardless of negotiations for a peace deal with the government of Pakistan.
Baitullah Mehsud told a group of journalists, invited to his stronghold in the tribal lands of South Waziristan, that he wanted to stop fighting the Pakistan army.
“Fighting between the Taliban and Pakistan is harming Islam and Pakistan. This fighting should come to an end immediately,” Mehsud said. But he made no commitment about halting attacks in Afghanistan, and said the jihad, or holy war, would carry on. “Islam does not recognise frontiers and boundaries. Jihad in Afghanistan will continue,” Mehsud said, as guards carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles looked on.
Mark Laity, NATO spokesman in Kabul, said: Such comments come as no surprise to us. Mehsud is a very dangerous man and everybody knows that.”
Mehsud emerged as a notorious militant commander over the past year, having been linked to a string of suicide attacks, including one that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last December.
After an offensive in January, the army succeeded in bottling up Mehsud’s forces in the mountainous tribal lands of Waziristan, giving the government a stronger position from which to negotiate.
Though led by Bhutto’s party, the new government opened talks with tribal elders after taking office in March to persuade Mehsud to stop launching attacks from its territory.
Pakistani authorities say tribal elders were close to finalising the peace pact. However, Pakistan’s Western allies, notably the United States, harbour grave reservations about any deal, as previous pacts have resulted in the militants regrouping in the safe sanctuary of the tribal lands.
The proposed 15-point agreement, a draft of which was seen by Reuters, called for an end to militant activity, an exchange of prisoners and gradual withdrawal of troops from Waziristan. However, it made no explicit reference to militants stopping attacks in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army says it controls all roads out of Mehsud’s tribal lands, which do not border Afghanistan, so the scope for cross-border movement is limited.
Mehsud broke a peace deal with the government in 2005, and last year humiliated the army by capturing some 250 soldiers, freeing them only in exchange for the release of his own men.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte voiced U.S. misgivings about Pakistani peace talks with the militants during a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Mehsud said he was proud to be an enemy of the United States. He said Afghans were leading the fight against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, while Pakistanis and other foreigners made up only 5 percent of the insurgents.
Mehsud said he had never met al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or Taliban chief Mullah Omar. “But, like every true Muslim, I wish to have a glimpse of these two great leaders,” he added.
Mehsud denied involvement in Bhutto’s murder. The government plans to seek a U.N investigation, but Mehsud said he would not cooperate with any such probe. “The U.N. is a slave body. We will not work with it.”