Ousted deputy leader of Pakistan Taliban favours talks with govt

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Tue Mar 6, 2012 10:00pm IST

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A deputy leader of the Pakistan Taliban, reportedly ousted at the weekend by a militant council, still favours peace talks with the Pakistani government, he told Reuters on Tuesday.

Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, who commands militants of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistan Taliban, in the tribal region of Bajaur near the Afghan border, has reportedly been in talks with the government in Islamabad over a peace deal.

The TTP, allied with the Afghan Taliban movement fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, is entrenched in the unruly areas along the porous frontier. It has pledged to overthrow the Pakistan government after the military started operations against the militant groups.

Past peace pacts with the TTP have failed to bring stability, and merely gave the umbrella group time and space to consolidate, launch attacks and impose their austere version of Islam on segments of the population.

The TTP leadership is split over new talks with the Pakistan government, with some hardliners rejecting them.

Mohammad said, however, he has never disobeyed the council.

"Whenever I've held talks with the government of Pakistan, I've held them with the permission and advice of the central leadership of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan," Mohammad said from an undisclosed location.

"When the Taliban in Afghanistan can talk to America, then why can't we talk to the government of Pakistan?"

Pakistan last month urged leaders of the Afghan Taliban movement to enter direct peace negotiations with Kabul, a possible sign that Islamabad is stepping up support for reconciliation in neighbouring Afghanistan.

A council which reportedly included TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, ousted Mohammad, but he said he had "no information on this council, its members, or where its meeting was held".

"Except for Ehsanullah Ehsan, who contacted the media, no important Taliban leader has contacted me." Ehsanullah is the spokesman for the TTP and announced the demotion.

Pakistan and the TTP have been in stuttering peace talks for months, with Mohammad one of the most vocal proponents of negotiations. In December, he said he hoped to sign a peace deal in Bajaur that would be a model for the rest of the tribal areas.

TTP leader Mehsud, who is close to al Qaeda, vehemently opposes the talks.

Any division within the TTP could hinder the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda's struggle in Afghanistan against the United States and its allies, making it more difficult to recruit young fighters and disrupting safe havens in Pakistan used by the Afghan militants.

It could also make the Pakistan Army's chore of clearing out the militant-infested regions easier if it can exploit the divisions.

The TTP has long struggled with its choice of targets. Some factions are at war with the Pakistan state while others concentrate on the fight against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.

There has been a noticeable decrease in militant attacks in Pakistan in recent months, but there continue to be random acts of violence across the country.

Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban commanders are asking the TTP to provide more men for the fight in Afghanistan and are looking to smooth over the dispute within the TTP.

(Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Ed Lane and Maria Golovnina)

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