Pakistan Signs Peace Deal Wth Tribal Elders Near Afghan Border

With the blessing of pro-Taliban militants, tribal elders from a volatile region near the Afghan border signed a peace deal with Pakistani authorities aimed at stopping the activities of foreign militants in the region, residents and officials said Tuesday.

The agreement in the Bajur region is the third of its kind in Pakistan's mountainous border zone. Usama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, escaped a U.S. missile strike in Bajur last year.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has sought accords across the semiautonomous region after a series of bloody military operations failed to catch Al Qaeda's top leadership or prevent Taliban militants fighting in Afghanistan from finding sanctuary there.

Malik Abdul Aziz, head of Bajur's tribal council, said the latest agreement was signed during a ceremony on Monday attended by about 700 tribal elders and government officials near the main town of Khar.

"After hectic efforts and talks with the local Taliban, we have signed a peace deal with the government to help it fight terrorism," Aziz told The Associated Press. "Local Taliban have assured us that they will not shelter foreign militants in their areas, and they are also part of a written agreement."

Pakistanis routinely refer to tribal militants, who are suspected of aiding their ethnic Pashtun brethren fighting in Afghanistan, as "local Taliban."

In return, the government will expedite development projects in the region, Aziz said.

Shakil Qadir Khan, the top government administrator in Bajur, confirmed the agreement, but provided no details.

Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in its war on international terrorism, says the deals will empower tribal elders to counter militancy in their territory and open the way for a massive development program designed to counter the poverty that leaves the region's young men vulnerable to extremism.

However, critics argue the government's military pullback has handed even greater control to militants, and U.S. military officials worry that crossborder attacks into Afghanistan are rising as a result.

Bajur has seen much fewer attacks on Pakistani forces than the Waziristan region further south, where the government struck peace deals with tribal leaders in 2005 and 2006.

Still, in January 2006, a U.S. Predator drone allegedly targeted al-Zawahiri at Damadola, a village in Bajur. At the time, Pakistani intelligence officials said al-Zawahiri was not at the site of the attack, but four other senior Al Qaeda militants were killed, although that information was never verified. Thirteen villagers were also killed.

In October, a Pakistani raid on an alleged al-Qaida training base at a religious school in Bajur killed 80 people and prompted angry protests against Musharraf and the United States. The next month, a suicide bomber killed 42 soldiers doing calisthenics at an army base in the northwestern town of Dargai, an attack widely believed to be a response to the Bajur airstrike.

Aziz said local militants have assured they would not allow any foreigners to use their soil for attacks against Pakistani troops or coalition forces across the border.

"I am confident that yesterday's deal will go a long way to restoring peace here," he said.

However, it was unclear whether the agreement included any measures to prevent Pakistani militants from joining Taliban operations.

In comments that appeared to undermine Pakistan's strategy of containing cross-border militancy, tribesmen praised by the government for a bloody assault last week on al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters in South Waziristan said they would continue to fight Western forces in Afghanistan.

"We will continue our jihad (in Afghanistan) if that is against America, the Russians, British or India as long as we have souls in our bodies," Haji Sharif, an aide to a senior tribal leader in the region, told reporters in Wana, South Waziristan's main town, on Monday.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad acknowledged Tuesday there was cross-border movement by Taliban supporters but denied the tribes behind the assault that reportedly left 130 Uzbek and Chechen fighters dead inside Pakistan were also telling people to go and fight in Afghanistan.

"It's not the tribe that is telling people to go across the border to fight coalition forces," he told AP. "If a couple of people among them is reported to be saying they are going across ... and we know about these people and their whereabouts, we will take action against them."