PESHAWAR, Pakistan &
Pakistan's new government and Taliban militants said Friday that they would press ahead with peace talks despite American skepticism and a militant bombing that killed three people at a police station.
A spokesman for an umbrella group of Pakistani militants defended the car bombing by saying the militants maintained their right to carry out revenge killings, a glaring exception to a cease-fire declared by the group in response to the peace talks.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Maulvi Umar also insisted the group would continue to support attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, even though a senior Pakistani intelligence official said the proposed peace deal would forbid them.
A U.S. State Department spokesman compared the talks to previous deals between militants and President Pervez Musharraf, deals that broke down last year amid sharp criticism from U.S. officials that militants were only regrouping and plotting more attacks.
"We'll see what this policy proposal yields," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "There have been attempts in this regard that have not succeeded."
After the deals broke down, Musharraf used heavy firepower against Taliban militants and their al-Qaida allies. Pakistan's five-week-old civilian administration is seeking to distance itself from that U.S.-backed approach, which many here argue only fueled militancy.
The Pakistani government says its envoys are talking with elders of the South Waziristan region's Mahsud tribe. The tribe is accused of sheltering militants involved in attacks inside Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. One member of the tribe, Baitullah Mehsud, leads Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and is considered the country's top Taliban leader. He has been accused of links to al-Qaida and responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto's own party has not blamed Mehsud for her killing. One of the failed deals under Musharraf was with Mehsud.
The senior official told The Associated Press that a draft of a 15-point deal under negotiation included a commitment from the Mahsud tribe to stop attacks on Pakistani government targets and to prevent their territory from being used for terrorism in Afghanistan.
The official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job, said it also included a commitment to evict foreigners from their area.
In return, the government would gradually withdraw the army, deliver development projects, create jobs and discuss any conflicts that arise with the tribal elders.
There would also be an exchange of prisoners, the official said.
Government officials say publicly that their talks with the Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan and groups elsewhere in the tribal areas are an attempt to isolate al-Qaida elements in the border region, considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden.
The intelligence official said the government knew that elders were discussing the draft accord with militants.
He said the outcome of the talks was uncertain. He wouldn't say whether the government had received any response from Mehsud.
Umar claimed militants across the region were ready for peace if the government met their demands to withdraw the army and release 200 militant prisoners in exchange for as many as 100 people, mostly security forces, held captive by the militants.
He insisted that militants will continue to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but suggested "if America wants peace in the area through negotiations and dialogue we are ready for talks with the Americans."
Tehrik-e-Taliban distributed fliers this week urging its followers to observe a cease-fire to give the peace talks a chance and saying violators would be "strung upside down in public and punished."
However, a five-week lull in violence was shattered at 6 a.m. Friday when the bomb went off between a police station and a market area in the northwestern city of Mardan, said Akhbar Ali Shah, a senior police official.
The bomb killed one police officer and two men working at a small restaurant near the police station. Twenty-six people, including 18 policemen, were wounded.
Umar said militants carried out the attack to avenge the death of a Taliban commander slain by police about 10 days ago when he came to Mardan for his brother's wedding.
"We have a cease-fire with the government. But wherever the government will take action against us and will kill our friends, we will take revenge," Umar told AP by phone from an undisclosed location.
He said the Taliban have given a "good response" to the government's offer of talks, which were being carried out through tribal leaders. He also claimed a peace deal could be signed within a week after a proposed tribal jirga, or council of elders.
Mohammad Adeel, a leader of one of the parties in the new government, said the Mardan blast would not derail the talks.
"Even in the peace talks these things happen. Even after the agreement some people will come and they will break the agreement but we will be very patient," Adeel said. He said he could not predict "how many days, how many weeks or how many months" it would take to reach an agreement.
Pakistan, Taliban continue talks
PESHAWAR, Pakistan &