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Thu 7 Feb 2008 12:34 PM

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Pakistan gov't to meet with Taliban

Officials to meet with militants after 'de facto' ceasefire in troubled tribal area, ministry says.

Pakistan's government is to hold talks with Taliban militants after a "de facto" ceasefire in a troubled tribal area between rebels and security forces, the interior minister said.

A Taliban spokesman in South Waziristan tribal district said a day earlier that Baitullah Mehsud, the key suspect in the murder of former premier Benazir Bhutto, had ordered an indefinite truce in the region.

"There is no announced ceasefire, there is a de facto ceasefire between militants and government troops. Both sides are currently holding the fire," Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz told AFP.

Nawaz said a tribal council, or jirga "comprising representatives of the government and tribal elders will be formed to negotiate peace but I cannot give you any timeframe in this regard."

The move is likely to be greeted with scepticism by Pakistan's Western allies, who have seen previous peace pacts in the tribal areas collapse after giving militants time to regroup and extend their reach.

More than 300 people have died in militant-related violence this year, much of it in fighting between Islamic militants and troops in South Waziristan, the stronghold of Mehsud.

Mehsud's fighters occupied a paramilitary fort in the region during January.

Nawaz said however that negotiations were the only way to achieve peace in the troubled region, identified by US officials as a safe haven for Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

"We will have to involve tribal elders, influentials and government representatives in the process of forming the jirga," Nawaz said.

"There are so many things involved. If we look at the past, several peace agreements were signed with militants but they violated all of them.

"However, there is no doubt that negotiation is the only way to convince these people to give up arms."

The Pakistani government and the US Central Intelligence Agency have accused Mehsud of masterminding Bhutto's assassination in a gun and suicide bomb attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on December 27.

Pakistani officials say he is linked to the Al-Qaeda network and is responsible for a string of suicide bombings around the country.

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