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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Pakistani tribes hold talks to quell militancy

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, June 27 (Reuters) - Hundreds of tribesmen flocked to a remote town close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan on Tuesday for talks aimed at halting violence between security forces and al Qaeda and pro-Taliban militants.

A day earlier in North Waziristan a suicide car bomber killed six paramilitary troops, less than 24 hours after a militant commander said a month-long ceasefire had been called to allow tribal elders to work out how to restore peace in the region.

At a tribal jirga, or council, the federal government's top administrator for the region appealed to some 500 elders and Muslim clerics for their support, and welcomed the ceasefire despite the attack. "I hope that we'll succeed in bringing peace through this jirga and, especially, with the support of tribesmen," Political Agent Fakhur-e-Alam Irfan told the meeting in Waziristan's main town of Miranshah.

Officials in North Waziristan estimate more than 300 militants, including 75 foreigners, have been killed since mid-2005, when the army switched its hunt for al Qaeda from South Waziristan.

But the military strategy has raised fears in Pakistan that tribal areas will become even more of a powder keg in the future.

The new appointments of both Irfan and the governor of North West Frontier Province, Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai, have raised expectations that the government will take a softer line.

"Previous incidents happened because of misunderstandings but we have to go forward and forget the past," Maulana Nek Zaman, a cleric and lawmaker, told the jirga.

Militant tribals want the government to dismantle all new checkposts and return troops to their camps in order to allow the tribal police to take over. They also want detained tribesmen freed, and sacked local officials reinstated.

Pakistan has some 80,000 regular army troops on the frontier with Afghanistan, most of them deployed in North and South Waziristan where al Qaeda-linked militants have been operating alongside Taliban and tribal sympathisers.

Afghan and Western forces across the border are in the midst of the bloodiest phase of an insurgency that has raged since the Taliban were ousted from power in Kabul in late 2001.

Over 1,100 people have died there since the start of the year, but most of the fighting has been in southern Afghanistan across from Pakistan's Baluchistan province, not Waziristan.
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