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Pakistani Taliban seeks talks with Bhutto party

Pakistani Taliban fighters said Sunday they are ready for dialogue with the winners of last week's election, and called on the new leadership to abandon President Pervez Musharraf's policies of waging war on terror.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The spokesman for Pakistani Taliban fighters battling government forces in the northwest said Sunday his movement was ready for dialogue with the winners of last week's parliamentary elections and called on them to abandon President Pervez Musharraf's policies in the war on terror.

In Islamabad, Benazir Bhutto's party, which will lead the new government, called for an end to military operations against insurgents in Baluchistan, a southwestern province where the Afghan government believes the leadership of the Afghan Taliban may be hiding.

U.S. officials have been concerned about the future of Pakistan's role in the war on terror since anti-Musharraf parties scored a crushing victory over the ruling party in last Monday's parliamentary elections.

The spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban told The Associated Press by telephone that his group welcomed the victory of anti-Musharraf parties and was anxious to talk with the winners about ways to bring peace to the lawless tribal areas, where U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden himself may be hiding.

"We hope after the government comes into power, they will not make the mistake of continuing the existing policies and will bring peace to the people of tribal areas," spokesman Maulvi Umar said. "We want peace and are looking for dialogue with those who got elected."

Taliban fighters have been battling Pakistani forces in the tribal areas of the North West Frontier Province, although a unilateral cease-fire called by the militants this month has reduced the level of fighting.

U.S. and Pakistani officials have blamed the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, for masterminding the Dec. 27 assassination of Bhutto, whose Pakistan People's Party finished first in the Monday ballot and will lead the new government.

In a statement Sunday, Bhutto's party also called for the release of all political prisoners in Baluchistan, including Akhtar Mengal, a former provincial chief minister who was arrested in a government crackdown in September 2006.

The call came following a meeting between its top leaders and party officials from Baluchistan, where militants have been fighting for self-rule and a greater share of royalties from the area's natural gas fields.

The party also apologized to the people of Baluchistan for "the atrocities and injustices committed against them" by government forces. The statement also called for "maximum provincial autonomy" for Baluchistan and Pakistan's three other provinces.

The two biggest opposition parties — including Bhutto's group — together captured at least 154 of the 268 contested seats in the National Assembly and have begun talks on forming a new coalition government.

Musharraf's ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, won only 40 seats. The Election Commission has yet to declare winners of six seats.

Before the balloting, opposition groups had been calling for a change in strategy for combating Islamic extremism, shifting from military operations to dialogue with militants, some of whom have close ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban, which have been battling U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Late Saturday, suspected Islamic militants attacked a government checkpoint near Peshawar, killing two paramilitary soldiers and one policeman, according to Zulfikar Khan, a local police official.

The Bush administration has considered the unpopular Musharraf among its closest allies in the war against terrorism, and U.S. officials have been encouraging the winners of last Monday's election to work with the president rather than undertake steps to remove him.

The country's outgoing ruling party promised Saturday to support the winners in combating Islamic extremism and said it was prepared to play a "positive, constructive role" in the interest of national stability.

During a press conference Sunday, a leading Islamist politician called on Musharraf to resign, saying "the people have given their verdict" and rejected the president's policies in the Monday ballot.

"If he has any respect for democracy, any realization of public opinion, Musharraf should resign or we will ask the people to demand that he step down," Qazi Hussain Ahmad, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, told reporters.

He also said his party strongly condemns "the naked American interference" in efforts to form a new government — a reference to U.S. statements urging the winners to work with Musharraf.

Ahmad's party boycotted the recent election, saying any vote under Musharraf would be flawed.