Pakistani Taliban chief pulls out of peace talks
Tuesday, 29 April 2008

REUTERS, ISLAMABAD - A Pakistani Taliban commander pulled out of a peace deal with the government after it refused to withdraw the army from tribal lands on the Afghan border, the militant's spokesman said on Monday.

Tribal elders in Pakistan's South Waziristan region have been trying to broker a peace deal between the government and Baitullah Mehsud, an al Qaeda ally who leads the Taliban in Pakistan.

Mehsud has been accused of being behind a wave of suicide attacks that have rocked Pakistan since mid-2007, including one that killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December.

"Our chief Baitullah Mehsud has announced the end of the dialogue process about an hour ago after tribal elders informed us that government is unwilling to pull out troops from Waziristan and other areas," Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban (Movement of Taliban), told Reuters by telephone.

Government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment. Mehsud last week announced a ceasefire after authorities expressed optimism that a peace deal would be finalised in a few days. Omar said Taliban fighters would hold their fire if government forces did not attack them.

"We don't want war and can resume talks if the government is ready. But if they launch a military operation against us or attack our men, then we will respond, we will take revenge," he said.

Omar said "hidden hands" in Pakistani intelligence agencies were acting under the influence of "foreign forces" to subvert the peace process. "The new government needs to get rid of these hidden hands if it wants peace in Waziristan and other tribal areas," Omar said.

Pakistan's new coalition government, led by Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), has said it wants to open talks with the militants in a bid to break with the policies of President Pervez Musharraf. Mehsud has denied involvement in Bhutto's assassination.

While the previous government and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have said there was evidence against Mehsud, the PPP leadership appears less sure and plans to ask for a U.N. investigation.

Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism is deeply unpopular, particularly among the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes living on the Afghan border. Musharraf has tried everything from military offensives to appeasement to tackle militancy, and critics say the new government will end up trying all the same strategies.

The government has made pacts with the militants in Waziristan before. Critics say the deals led to a lull in fighting in Pakistan but gave militants breathing space to regroup and intensify cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

Three people, including a policeman, were killed and more than 20 were wounded in a car bomb outside a police station in the northwestern town of Mardan on Friday. Omar said the Taliban carried out the attack to avenge a killing of one of their fighters by the police.

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