Pakistan halts offensive to talk with rebels
Tribal elders used as intermediaries
BARA, Pakistan - Pakistani security forces have halted an operation against militants in the country's volatile northwest to try negotiating peace through tribal elders, officials said yesterday.
Tariq Hayat, chief administrator for the Khyber tribal area, said local tribal leaders have agreed in principle to conditions that include handing over 16 wanted men and respecting government authority in the region. A tribal council also is mediating between authorities and Mangal Bagh, a key militant leader.
Elders have historically wielded significant influence in the tribal areas, which are considered havens for pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
Pakistan launched the paramilitary offensive June 28 after militants began threatening Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, as well as a key road used to send supplies to US-led forces in Afghanistan.
Hayat said the tribal elders would meet with officials today to hash out details. "Security forces will remain in the area" while negotiations proceed, Hayat said.
Muhammad Ali, an official in charge of a crisis management center set up by the government in Peshawar to monitor the offensive, said security forces had stopped demolishing militant centers. He said the round-the-clock curfew in the troubled Khyber town of Bara - a key focus of the operation - was being relaxed during daytime hours.
Yesterday, shops in Bara were open, selling cloth, electronics, and food. Paramilitary forces had only a minor visible presence in the area.
The move to talk peace appeared more in line with the policies of the new Pakistani government than the paramilitary operation itself.
The government came to power after February elections with promises of using alternative methods to combating militancy, and it has sought peace deals with militants including the Pakistani Taliban, though officials usually insist the deals are with tribes.
But government officials said they could not ignore the potential threat to Peshawar, a key hub, and sent out troops to Khyber.
The operation itself has faced criticism, with skeptics noting that it has met with scant resistance and appears to have led to the death of only one militant. Many militants apparently fled before the operation started.
A key target of the offensive is Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group headed by Bagh. It and a rival group, Ansarul Islam, are accused of trying to impose their own Taliban-style Islamic rule in Khyber.
A tribal council leader, Amal Khan, said he had met with Bagh and the militant leader had shown interest in a peaceful end to the operation.
Despite the operation, the two militant groups have been reportedly fighting each other in the valley, reportedly killing dozens.
The previous government, led by allies of the US-backed president, Pervez Musharraf, relied heavily on military action against insurgents.
On Friday, Musharraf defended his approach and warned that without a united effort, "Talibanization" would spread in the frontier.
"We need to check this terrorism and extremism and act against it collectively as a nation," he told a gathering of business leaders in Karachi.
The new government has insisted it is serious about ending militancy in Khyber.
The Ministry of Interior has said it has arrested 92 "criminals" and seized large caches of arms and ammunition in the Khyber operation.