By Ed Johnson
May 15 (Bloomberg) — Truce talks between Pakistan’s government and militants in the tribal region may be causing a rise in terrorist attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, NATO said.
The level of extremist violence in eastern Afghanistan last month was 50 percent higher than the same period last year and approached the peak seen during fighting in August 2007, spokesman James Appathurai said yesterday.
“The concern is that deals being struck between the Pakistani government and extremist groups in the tribal areas may be allowing them, the extremists, to have safe havens, rest, reconstitute and then move across the border,” Appathurai told reporters in Brussels.
Pakistan’s ruling coalition, elected Feb. 18, says it will use a combination of military force and negotiations to curb terrorism and began holding truce talks with the country’s most prominent Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, last month. The policy has raised questions from Bush administration officials, who say previous truces let the Taliban step up attacks on U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan.
The Taliban regime was ousted from Afghanistan by a U.S.- led coalition in 2001. NATO leads a force of 47,000 soldiers that is battling Taliban guerrillas in southern and eastern provinces and trying to stabilize the country under President Hamid Karzai‘s government.
Pakistani authorities and pro-Taliban militants exchanged dozens of prisoners yesterday as part of the truce talks with Mehsud, Associated Press reported.
Thirty militants from North and South Waziristan districts were freed in exchange for 12 government soldiers, AP said, citing unidentified Pakistani intelligence officials.
Mehsud is demanding the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the border region in return for a commitment to halt terrorist attacks and expel non-Pakistani militants.
The army said two days ago it had “decided to readjust” its positions in Waziristan, as Pakistani newspapers reported that troops were being pulled out of the area.
Pakistan’s government said this week the truce talks won’t undermine military operations in the tribal region, where U.S. intelligence agencies say al-Qaeda has established bases.
“The security requirements will not be abandoned or ignored under the policy,” the official Associated Press of Pakistan cited Foreign Office spokesman Muhammad Sadiq as saying May 8.
Last month, authorities in North West Frontier Province freed militant leader Sufi Muhammad, the founder of a movement that seized control of the northern Swat Valley in October. Under the truce, he promised to respect government institutions so that order can be restored in the region.
Pakistan’s new government, which faces public pressure to step back from cooperating with the U.S. war on terrorism, has said it is reviewing its counterterrorism policies.
Since 2002, President Pervez Musharraf has allowed the U.S. to target suspected militants in the tribal region using Predator pilotless drones.
A suspected missile strike late yesterday on a village in Pakistan’s Bajur tribal region near Afghanistan killed about a dozen people, AP said. Local Taliban leaders had gathered for a feast at the targeted house in Damadola, the news agency said, citing villager Ibrahim Khan.
Pakistan army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas couldn’t confirm reports of the strike, AP reported.