A militant leader with alleged ties to al-Qaida welcomed an offer by Pakistan's new prime minister to negotiate with Islamic fighters accused of launching terrorist attacks from tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
Maulvi Faqir Mohammed also said Sunday his fighters were not "enemies" of Pakistan. "Our war is with America," he said.
Speaking in the Bajur tribal region, Mohammed told more than 4,000 supporters — hundreds of armed militants among them — that "we welcome the government's announcement of talks with the Taliban."
Mohammed added, though, that the government should not cooperate with the United States.
"Whenever Pakistan will work for American interests as its ally, we will have our opposition to that matter," Mohammed said amid chants of "death to America."
Pakistani authorities claim Mohammed has ties with al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri. His comments came a day after Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said in his inaugural speech that fighting terrorism was his government's top priority.
But in a rebuke to the strong-arm anti-terrorism policy of the U.S.-allied President Pervez Musharraf, Gilani also said his government was willing to talk to militants who are ready to lay down their arms and "join the path of peace."
Expanding education and development in the impoverished region would be a "key pillar" of the government's strategy against militants in the tribal zone, he said.
The United States has criticized past efforts to reach out to militants, saying it has allowed hard-liners to tighten their grip along the border.
Will Pakistan curb U.S. airstrikes?
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a pro-Taliban cleric and member of Gilani's coalition government, said the new administration will try to prevent the U.S. military from launching further airstrikes inside Pakistan.
"We will try our best to stop America from making any further attacks in our border areas," Rehman told reporters in the eastern city of Multan.
Many Pakistanis believe Musharraf's reliance on large-scale army operations, as well as his tacit approval of U.S. airstrikes inside Pakistan, have endangered civilians and produced a spike in domestic terrorism.
Also Sunday, a leader in Gilani's administration called for Musharraf to step down.
"The sooner he resigns the better it is for himself and for the democratic process," said Ahsan Iqbal, a lawmaker from the Pakistan Muslim League-N party who is tipped to become education minister in the new Cabinet.
"On Feb. 18 people have voted against his policies and have voted for change," Iqbal said.
Opposition parties swept last month's parliamentary elections amid resentment over Musharraf's increasingly authoritarian rule, Pakistan's mounting economic problems and a surge in militant attacks.
Parliament elected Gilani, a loyalist of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, as prime minister last week. On Monday, Musharraf was expected to swear in more than 20 members of the new Cabinet.