Officials: Pakistan-Taliban truce followed secret talks

Benazir Bhutto's party condemn any dialogue between government and militants.

taliban 88 (photo credit:)
taliban 88
(photo credit: )
Government officials held secret talks with gunmen and tribal elders as part of a dialogue that produced a cease-fire announced by Taliban gunmen who had been fighting Pakistani forces near the Afghan border, two Pakistani officials said Thursday. Benazir Bhutto's party condemned any dialogue between the government and Taliban militants, whom Pakistani officials themselves blame for the Dec. 27 assassination of the former prime minister. Few details have emerged about terms of the cease-fire, announced Wednesday by a spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a militant umbrella group, after weeks of heavy fighting. The government of President Pervez Musharraf did not confirm a truce but Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said the national leadership was ready for a dialogue with the Taliban. However, militant spokesman Maulvi Mohammed Umar said the truce would include the tribal belt along the Afghan border and the restive Swat region to the east where the army has also battled pro-Taliban fighters. Tehrik-e-Taliban is led by Baitullah Mehsud, an al-Qaida-linked commander based in South Waziristan whom Musharraf's government has blamed for a series of suicide attacks across Pakistan, including Bhutto's assassination. The two Pakistani officials, who are familiar with the talks, said they took place at an undisclosed location in South Waziristan. But they would not say who represented the government or how long the dialogue had been going on. Militant representatives included Siraj Haqqani, a prominent Afghan militant blamed for attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan, one official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Ismail Khan, a journalist who reports on the border area for the newspaper Dawn, said both sides appeared to be respecting the truce. But he said the military's apparent decision to halt its operation against militants in South Waziristan raised questions about Pakistan's strategy in dealing with the Taliban. Word that the government was talking to the Taliban enraged followers of Bhutto, who was killed in a suicide bombing attack during an election rally by her Pakistan Peoples Party in Rawalpindi. "The government is holding talks with the man blamed by it for the killing of Benazir Bhutto. We condemn it," spokeswoman Sherry Rehman said. Rehman spoke in the southern province of Sindh, where an estimated 10,000 of Bhutto's followers gathered to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period. After Thursday's religious ceremonies, Bhutto's party, now led by her widowed husband Asif Ali Zardari, is set resume campaigning for crucial Feb. 18 parliamentary elections, which were delayed six weeks after her death. A three-member team of British investigators from Scotland Yard arrived in the capital Islamabad early Thursday to share with Pakistan the findings of its probe into exactly how Bhutto died _ amid confusion over whether she was killed by gunshot or the impact of the suicide bombing that followed. Aidan Liddle, spokesman for the British High Commission, said it would release an executive summary of the report on Friday. Bhutto's violent death has put a damper on public campaigning for the upcoming election, aimed at restoring civilian government after eight years of military rule. Musharraf was re-elected last October but needs a strong majority in parliament to fend off demands for his impeachment. White House officials have lauded Musharraf as an indispensable ally in the war on terror. But the former general has seen his support among Pakistanis steadily erode. Even retired generals have joined lawyers and other professionals in demanding that he step down. On Thursday, a private TV news station accused the government of blocking its transmissions after it aired a program featuring a critic of Musharraf. The satellite transmission of Aaj television was blocked late Wednesday after commentator Nusrat Javed appeared on-screen, said Aslam Dogar, an assignment editor at the station. Aaj television had been banned in November when Musharraf declared a state of emergency and put curbs on the media. A truce with the Taliban may help the government maintain order during the Feb. 18 balloting, although numerous other extremist groups throughout the country may not consider themselves bound by the truce. One man was killed and five others were wounded when a bomb exploded Thursday in southwestern Baluchistan province, police said. Tribesmen have been fighting for greater autonomy there. The government has repeatedly tried to strike peace deals with local pro-Taliban militants, urging them to expel foreign al-Qaida militants the U.S. has warned may use their sanctuary inside Pakistan's tribal regions to plot terror attacks around the globe. A cease-fire in North Waziristan in September 2006, which collapsed in July, was widely seen as a setback in the war against terror because it gave the Taliban and al-Qaida a freer hand to stage cross-border attacks into Afghanistan and extend their control of areas within Pakistan. In Washington, the State Department signaled it would oppose any agreement that resembled the last truce. "I think everyone understands, including President Musharraf, that that agreement with tribal leaders did not in fact produce the results that everyone, including President Musharraf, had intended," deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. "We want to see an agreement that is effective. The last agreement was not effective by President Musharraf's own admission."