Troops Withdrawal from Waziristan?
Wed May 14, 2008; Reuters
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan has shifted troops in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border and swapped prisoners with militants in an effort to make peace with an al Qaeda-linked commander, officials said on Wednesday.
The new government has been trying to make peace with Baituallah Mehsud, who leads the Taliban in Pakistan, through ethnic Pashtun tribal elders since it took power last month after the country suffered its bloodiest-ever phase of attacks.
But the peace bid has raised questions, especially among Pakistan's Western allies with troops in Afghanistan who say similar deals in the past merely gave the militants a free hand to regroup and plot violence in Afghanistan and beyond.
NATO said on Wednesday there had recently been a sharp increase in insurgent attacks in eastern Afghanistan.
The latest peace talks stalled last month after the government rejected a militant demand for troops to get out of the region which has long been an al Qaeda and Taliban haven.
But a senior government official said on Wednesday troops were being "thinned out" in at least two parts of South Waziristan to pave the way for an agreement.
"The troops have started thinning out from the Kotkay and Spinkai Raghzai areas," said the official based in the northwest who declined to be identified.
"We hope to formalise the agreement in two or three days."
The military said troop positions were being adjusted and the government would decide on whether to pull troops out of South Waziristan, depending on the outcome of the negotiations.
"The army has decided to readjust present positions and open various roads ... for the return of the civil population," a military spokesman said.
Security officials said militants freed 15 soldiers taken prisoner by them in return for the release of 31 comrades by the government as part of the pact. Another security official said a "verbal agreement" had already reached between the two sides.
INCREASE IN AFGHAN ATTACKS
Mehsud has emerged over the past year as Pakistan's most notorious militant commander, blamed for a wave of suicide attacks across the country including the one that killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December.
Mehsud denied involvement in Bhutto's murder.
The proposed agreement with Mehsud calls for an end to militant activity, an exchange of prisoners and the gradual withdrawal of troops from the region.
According to a draft of a 15-point accord seen by Reuters, however, there is no explicit mention of militants stopping cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.
But it calls on Mehsud's tribesmen to expel al Qaeda and other foreign fighters from their area and stop their lands being used as a base for attacks.
Previous pacts, including one struck in North Waziristan in late 2006, included similar terms but are widely regarded as having failed to end violence beyond an initial lull.
NATO said on Wednesday there had been a 50 percent increase in insurgent attacks in east Afghanistan last month compared with last year and raised concerns it was partly because of pacts on the Pakistani side of the border.
"The concern is that the deals struck by the Pakistan government and extremist groups in tribal areas may be allowing them to have a safe haven," a NATO spokesman in Brussels said.
Pakistan's new government led by Bhutto's party has promised to use negotiations to end violence that surged from July last year after troops stormed a radical mosque complex in Islamabad.
President Pervez Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism is deeply unpopular with many Pakistanis, who see the alliance with the United States as inciting militant violence.
(Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels)
(Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel and David Fogarty)