ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A top Taliban leader in Pakistan with links to al-Qaida has ordered his followers to stop attacking Pakistani forces in the country’s troubled northwest region as he negotiates a deal with the new government to end months of political violence, according to Taliban and Pakistani officials.
Baitullah Mehsud, who has been accused of masterminding the December assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, ordered the cease-fire as part of an agreement that calls for prisoner exchanges and a withdrawal of Pakistani military forces from areas near the Afghan border.
The new government’s talks with Mehsud, which resemble past efforts to disarm Islamist groups through negotiations that ended in failure, mark the sharpest break yet with the hard-line security policy followed by U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf. U.S. officials expressed concern that negotiations with perhaps the country’s most notorious Islamist commander would fail to bring a lasting solution to Pakistan’s political tumult.
There were conflicting accounts of how much progress had been made toward an accord with Mehsud, who in 2005 agreed to a cease-fire that collapsed last fall. Mehsud’s followers said Pakistani security forces have already begun to withdraw from the restive tribal areas of North and South Waziristan as part of the accord still being negotiated.
“We have reached a final stage of an agreement with the Pakistani authorities for a peace deal,” said Maulvi Omar, spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban.
But Pakistani officials familiar with the terms of the deal said negotiations were ongoing. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, denied that troops had moved out of the region.
The move by Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its anti-terrorism efforts, has been received cautiously by U.S. officials here and has provoked skepticism from the White House. Under Musharraf, Pakistan has previously brokered peace deals with extremists that eventually collapsed. Critics say the deals allowed Taliban and al-Qaida fighters – including Mehsud’s group, one of the country’s largest – to recruit and lead guerrilla operations across the Afghan border.
“We have been concerned about these types of approaches because we don’t think they work,” White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Wednesday in Washington.
CIA Director Michael Hayden has said his agency has concluded that pro-Taliban allies of Mehsud and al-Qaida were behind the suicide bombing that killed Bhutto in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi in December. In March, Pakistani authorities filed formal charges against Mehsud and four other men accused of planning the attack.