Taliban calls truce in Pakistan

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- After weeks of escalating battles with government troops, the Taliban declared a cease-fire yesterday - a move likely to frustrate U.S. officials who have urged Pakistan to act decisively against Islamic radicals in the country's tribal belt.

The government of President Pervez Musharraf did not confirm that a truce had been struck, but Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said the government was ready for "dialogue" with the militants. In the past, such announcements by the militants have signaled an imminent accord.

At the same time, Pakistan's military suffered a setback when three senior army generals, including the commander in restive South Waziristan, were killed in a helicopter crash blamed on mechanical problems.

Elsewhere, apparent election- related violence broke out in Karachi, the country's largest city. Gunmen killed a senior official of the Awami National Party, a secular group representing Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun minority.

Hundreds of party supporters rioted in response to the shooting of party Vice President Fazal Rahman Kakakhel, burning vehicles and firing guns in the air.

The violence raised fears that the government could again postpone parliamentary elections that are to take place Feb. 18. Balloting was originally scheduled for Jan. 8 but was put off for six weeks after rioting broke out in the wake of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's assassination Dec. 27. That violence was also centered in Karachi.

The cease-fire by Taliban militants in the tribal areas was announced by a spokesman for Baitullah Mehsud, the new commander of what is believed to be the largest concentration of pro-Taliban fighters inside Pakistan.

The spokesman told journalists by telephone that the group had "decided to halt activities across the country for an indefinite period." He said the halt to fighting came at the initiative of the government.

Although the chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said no cease-fire agreement had been reached, witnesses said army troops had begun dismantling checkpoints and pulling back from areas where fighting had raged in recent days.

A truce might provide a pre-election respite from suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of people across Pakistan in recent months, including one in the garrison city of Rawalpindi this week that killed eight people.

Mehsud's al-Qaida-linked group has been blamed for dozens of attacks, and fear of suicide bombings has all but halted large campaign rallies in advance of the parliamentary vote.

Previous cease-fires in tribal areas have been harshly criticized by the United States and other Western governments, which say the militants use truces to rearm and regroup.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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