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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Pakistan signs pact with pro-Taliban militants

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Pro-Taliban militants and the Pakistani government reached a peace deal on Tuesday under which the militants agreed to stop attacks in both Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan, negotiators said.

Hundreds of Pakistani troops and militants have been killed in the Waziristan region as the government has attempted to push its authority into semi-autonomous tribal lands on the Afghan border as part of efforts in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"The agreement will pave the way for permanent peace in the region," said Malik Shahzada, a member of a tribal council that has been overseeing the negotiations with the rebels.

The agreement was signed on a dusty football ground at a college in Miranshah, the main town of the North Waziristan region.

Scores of members of the tribal council, most in turbans and with long beards, watched as a Pakistani army commander, Major General Azhar Ali Shah, embraced representatives of the militants after the pact was signed.

Many members of the al Qaeda network and the Taliban fled to Waziristan after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is due to visit Afghanistan on Wednesday for security talks with President Hamid Karzai, has said no group could use Pakistan as a springboard for attacks on other countries.

But Afghanistan and its allies have long complained the Taliban are able to benefit from havens on the Pakistani side of the long, rugged border.

Musharraf has also vowed to clear foreign militants from the Pakistani side of the border but Tuesday's agreement said foreigners could stay in Waziristan, as long as they kept the peace.

According to a copy of the agreement obtained by Reuters, the militants agreed that all foreigners would have to leave but those unable to do so would have to respect the peace deal.

Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding out somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border but security analysts doubt he is in Waziristan, given the security forces' focus on the area.

Several of bin Laden's Arab lieutenants have been killed in North Waziristan and U.S. drone aircraft have carried out missile strikes on al Qaeda targets from across the border in Afghanistan.

Security officials say some central Asian militants are also in the area.

PASHTUN TRIBES The fiercely independent ethnic Pashtun tribes that inhabit both sides of the porous border have never been brought under the control of any government, including British colonial rulers.

The Waziristan-based militants had been demanding free movement into Afghanistan, which the tribes have always enjoyed, to support the Taliban in their jihad, or holy war, there.

But that had been ruled out under the deal, an official said.

"Except for trade, people will not be allowed to go to Afghanistan to launch attacks," said Nek Zaman, a member of the tribal council who is also a member of the Pakistani parliament.

Under the agreement, the government will stop air and ground operations in Waziristan and dismantle newly built checkposts.

People arrested during military operations would be released and confiscated property, including weapons, would be returned, according to the agreement.
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