Taliban issue threat over US strikes

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The Independent Online

A leading Taliban warlord has threatened to pull out of a ceasefire agreement with the Pakistan government if US missile strikes inside the country are not immediately halted.

In a move that threatens to create fresh turmoil for the country, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Taliban leader in the North Waziristan, said the ceasefire that has been working since 2006 would be scrapped and that attacks on foreign and government targets would begin if the missile strikes were allowed to continue.

"The Pakistani government is clearly involved in these attacks by American spy planes so we will target government interests as well as foreigners," the warlord's spokesman, Ahmedullah Ahmedi, told the Associated Press.

Since August, missile strikes fired from US pilotless drones have become a near everyday occurrence as Washington seeks to kill Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters blamed for entering neighbouring Afghanistan and carrying out attacks on Western troops. While a number of militants have been killed, many civilians have also lost their lives in the missile strikes.

While it is unclear what undertaking the Pakistan government may give to the US in private, in public it routinely condemns the strikes as an infringement of its sovereignty and calls on the Bush administration to put an end to them. It also warns that they fuel growing anti-American sentiment and play into the hands of extremists. Yesterday, the government for the second time summoned the US ambassador in Islamabad to protest about the strikes. A spokeswoman for Ambassador Anne Patterson said she would convey the message.

Meanwhile Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousef Giliani dismissed speculation that his government had secretly come to an arrangement with the US about the strikes. "I think these things are happening because of this transition period," he said, referring to the recent US election. "I am sure when the government of Senator Obama is formed, attacks like these will be controlled."

The most recent US strike took place on Wednesday when at least two missiles hit and destroyed a house in the Bannu district, located in the North West Frontier Province, alongside North Waziristan. The attack was the first such strike outside of the largely autonomous tribal areas. Unconfirmed reports said that five militants were killed.

There are various Taliban factions operating inside the tribal areas and the US and Pakistani authorities have different priorities in confronting them, depending on whether their activities are focused inside Pakistan or else in Afghanistan. Perhaps most prominent is that led by Baitullah Mehsud, blamed for a number of attacks inside Pakistan, including the assassination last December of Benazir Bhutto, and routinely targeted by the Pakistan military.

Other commanders such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur have steered clear of attacks on Pakistani targets. However his spokesman said that because of the ongoing strikes, the de facto ceasefire agreed with the government would come to an end as of last night.

Meanwhile, despite tension along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border Nato claimed that coordination between the security forces on both sides had actually improved. A statement released by Nato said that after coming under attack from militants operating inside Pakistan on Tuesday, Nato forces contacted their Pakistani counterparts who then launched a counter-strike against the militants.

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