Tribal elders and Pakistani authorities struck a deal Wednesday aimed at bringing peace to a militant-infested northwest region where a paramilitary offensive has tried to flush out insurgents, representatives said.
Meanwhile, about 700 army troops were sent to a separate northwest region to end a siege of a police station by militants demanding the release of fellow fighters, said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's top spokesman.
The agreement in the Khyber tribal area was the latest manifestation of the new Pakistani government's preferred, and much-criticized, approach to ending extremism: negotiations. A top official warned, however, that ending the offensive depended on tribes meeting the conditions.
The tribal elders involved in the talks were effectively mediating for Mangal Bagh, a top militant leader targeted in the paramilitary offensive. Elders have historically had significant influence in Pakistan's tribal regions, where central government authority is relatively weak.
Shaukat Khan, a tribal leader and spokesman, said the government had agreed to end the offensive in exchange for the tribes ensuring peace in the Bara area, where the operation has focused. Elders pledged that militants will stop threatening the nearby city of Peshawar, a key northwest hub, and stop attacking government installations, officials and forces, Khan said.
The government would lift the curfew imposed in Bara and release prisoners taken during the offensive, which was launched in late June, Khan said.
"With this agreement, we have assured that the writ of the government will be respected," Khan said. He said the elders had pledged to pay $423,000 and hand over 25 guns, in a tribal tradition, if they failed to meet their promise.
Offensive targeted Taliban-style groups
Tariq Hayat, chief administrator for Khyber tribal region, confirmed only the vague outlines of the agreement. He would not say when the paramilitary operation, which was halted amid the talks, would officially end.
"If there is peace, they don't challenge the writ of the government and they don't take the law into their hands, then we will see what we will do next," Hayat said.
Pakistan launched the offensive after militants began threatening Peshawar as well as a key road used to send supplies to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The operation has largely targeted Lashkar-e-Islam, the militant group headed by Bagh, and a rival group, Ansarul Islam, both of which are accused of trying to impose their own Taliban-style Islamic rule in Khyber.
Hayat said the government told the tribal leaders that it had some "reservations" about Bagh. He said the "elders assured the government that they will take care of those reservations." He declined to say what those reservations were.
Khan, however, insisted Bagh, with whom the elders had conferred, was on board.
"Of course he will honor the agreement," Khan said. "We have discussed all these things with Mangal Bagh in our two meetings."
Pakistan's new government came to power after February elections with promises to use alternative methods to combat militancy instead of relying only on the military.
It has sought peace deals with militants including the top Taliban commander in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, though officials usually insist the deals are only with tribes.
Mehsud has said he was suspending talks between his allies and the government in response to the operation in Khyber. His spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
U.S. opposes such deals
U.S. officials have criticized such peace deals, saying they could allow pro-Taliban militants to regroup and intensify attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The recent Khyber paramilitary operation was a shift in strategy for the government — officials said they simply could not ignore the threats to Peshawar. But the offensive has also faced criticism, with skeptics noting that it has met scant resistance.
The Ministry of Interior has said 92 "criminals" were arrested and large caches of arms and ammunition seized in Khyber amid the operation. Several militant centers were also demolished. But many militants had apparently fled before the operation began, including Bagh, who is said to be in the remote Tirah Valley along the Afghan border.
Parts of Pakistan's northwest, especially along its border with Afghanistan, are considered havens for pro-Taliban and al-Qaida-linked fighters who have caused much havoc.
Late Wednesday, between 150 and 200 militants were reported to have surrounded a police station in Doaba, an area 45 miles southwest of Peshawar, and they were demanding police release seven of their detained comrades, according to Abbas, the army spokesman.
Troops have been sent to the area to "neutralize" the situation, he said, adding that no fighting has occurred so far between militants and security forces.