Pakistani Government Seeking Peace Deal With Taliban Commander Tribe

The government is seeking a peace deal with a tribe that includes Pakistan's top Taliban commander, an official said Thursday, days after it struck an accord with a militant group in Pakistan's volatile northwest.

A senior U.S. State Department official said any agreement in Waziristan, a key militant stronghold on the Afghan border, should help end the "plotting and planning" of Al Qaeda elements there.

Pakistan's new civilian government wants to counter surging Islamic militancy with dialogue and development, distancing itself from the more forceful tactics of President Pervez Musharraf.

The border region is considered rife with Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, including groups who orchestrate attacks on the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan and plot terrorist strikes in Europe and North America.

Zahid Khan, a senior official in one of the parties in the ruling coalition, said government envoys were in talks with elders of the Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan.

The tribe includes Baitullah Mehsud, a militant leader accused of ties to Al Qaeda and wanted for a string of suicide attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

"We will ensure that all people from this tribe respect and abide by an agreement which we might reach with them," Khan told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

"There are no direct talks with Baitullah Mehsud. But Baitullah Mehsud is also part of Mahsud tribe and elders from this tribe will be responsible for any violence in their controlled areas."

Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for Mehsud, said militants across the region were ready for peace if the government met its demands to withdraw the army and release militant prisoners.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said it had received no order to pull back. He referred questions about the talks to the federal government.

Officials including the interior minister and the government spokeswoman were not available for comment.

Khan, a leader of the Awami National Party, was involved in talks which resulted in the freeing earlier this week of an aging pro-Taliban cleric, Sufi Muhammad.

The government of the North West Frontier Province said Muhammad's group signed a pact renouncing violence in return for being allowed to peacefully campaign for Islamic law in the Swat Valley and neighboring areas.

The dialogue effort has received a cautious response from Washington, which has given Pakistan billions in return for aid in the war on terror. U.S. officials complained that past deals Musharraf struck with militants simply gave breathing space to Al Qaeda, before eventually breaking down.

On Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the Bush administration has "been concerned about these types of approaches, because we don't think they work."

"What we encourage them to do," Perino said, "is to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there."

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher indicated support for Pakistan's effort to negotiate peace with the tribes — not with the Taliban or Al Qaeda — but cautioned that it had to produce results.

"Getting people who have been involved in violence in the past to abandon violence and take on a peaceful path is important," Boucher said.

"There has to be less violent activity. There has to be an end to the Al Qaeda elements, who are very dangerous, who are up there plotting and planning, not so much in this case in the Swat Valley but certainly in the cases of Waziristan, where there's negotiations going on," he said.

"Any particular agreement can only be judged by whether it stops militant activity and produces the safest situation for all," he said.