Pakistan Aims to Quell Hostilities
In Tribal Region, Pulls Out Troops
By ZAHID HUSSAIN; Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2008
ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan freed dozens of militants Wednesday and started pulling out troops from parts of a volatile tribal region as a part of an effort to make peace with an Islamic militant commander.
Government officials also said the two sides were close to a deal which could end hostilities in the country's tribal region of South Waziristan and in parts of North West Frontier Province, one of Pakistan's four provinces.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said it is concerned that the Pakistani government's peace efforts have led to a sharp rise in attacks by insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, where the coalition forces are fighting insurgents.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer plans to visit Islamabad soon for talks.
Pakistan's new government has been trying to reach a peace deal with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban, a militant outfit involved in several bloody terrorist attacks in northern Pakistan. But the talks stalled last month after the government rejected the militant demand to pull out troops from tribal region.
The government's efforts have alarmed Washington, which worries that the lull will allow al Qaeda and other militant groups to regroup inside Pakistan and attack both there and over the border. But Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has said the government's past strategy, centered on military assaults, failed to produce the desired results.
The government Wednesday freed more than 37 militants in exchange for 12 soldiers. An Army spokesman confirmed that the prisoners were exchanged as part of peace talks with Taliban militants.
More prisoner exchanges are expected in next few days. Some 200 Pakistani soldiers and officials, including Pakistan's ambassador to Kabul, are still being held by the Mr. Mehsud's followers.
The government is, however, reluctant to release some of the top Taliban commanders including Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, a former defense minister in Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime. Most of them have been captured in Pakistan with the help of information provided by U.S. intelligence agencies. "We cannot free them as it will have huge consequence," said a senior army official.
Mr. Mehsud is said to command about 20,000 militants and in the past year has expanded his influence from South Waziristan into several parts of North West Frontier Province. Mr. Mehsud has also been charged by a Pakistani court of masterminding the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Analysts said a major objective of the militants is to force the government to pull out army troops from tribal regions which would allow them to concentrate on fighting against the NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistan this week started thinning out troops in parts of South Waziristan. A military spokesman said the troop positions were being relocated to allow the tribesmen to return home but the move also met a key militant demand.
"The army has decided to readjust present positions and open various roads," said Major General Athar Abbas.
According to another military official, the government intends to replace the regular army troops in the region with Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force which is being trained and equipped by the U.S.
Meanwhile, there are signs that Islamic hardliners are gaining influence in the North West Frontier Province. The province's government this week agreed to establish Islamic Sharia law courts in the region of Swat, which has been the main centre of Islamic insurgency for the past one year.