Pakistan suspends airstrikes against the Taliban

AFP-JIJI

Pakistan said Sunday it was halting airstrikes against Taliban militants in response to a monthlong cease-fire announced by the insurgents a day earlier, paving the way for the resumption of peace talks.

The government entered into peace talks with the Taliban last month, aimed at ending the militants’ seven-year insurgency, but the dialogue broke down after the group killed 23 kidnapped soldiers.

The military responded with a series of airstrikes in its volatile northwestern tribal regions, leaving more than 100 insurgents dead. On Saturday, the Taliban announced a monthlong cease-fire aimed at resuming the stalled talks.

“After the positive announcement yesterday by the Taliban, the government has decided to suspend the airstrikes which were continuing for the past few days,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said in a statement Sunday.

The statement added that “the government and armed forces of Pakistan, however, reserve the right for a befitting response to any act of violence (by the Taliban).”

The Taliban’s cease-fire announcement on Saturday was met with skepticism by analysts who said it may have been a tactic to allow the militants to regroup after taking heavy losses in airstrikes.

But Khan said the “government considers the announcement of stopping of violent activities by Taliban a positive development.”

He added that since the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took charge in June last year, Islamabad had not taken “any unjustified action” against the militants, choosing only to react to violence rather than initiating any new military operations.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a member of the government’s negotiation team, told reporters “I think that the possibility of resumption of peace talks has now increased. A cease-fire was the demand of the government and the negotiations committee.

“But the cease-fire should be effective. If attacks continue then the conducive environment we are searching for won’t materialise.”

Reacting to the minister’s announcement, political analyst Raza Rumi told reporters that the government was attempting to play a balancing act and had to match the Taliban’s cease-fire “to ensure right wing public opinion does not turn against them.”

“I think one issue is the government wants to appear as a peace-loving political entity. But deep down there is a desire by both parties to buy more time given the way the situation is unfolding in Afghanistan.

“They want to wait for what happens,” he said, referring to the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and its regional impact.

Security analyst Talat Masood, a retired general, said the cease-fire had come about because the military’s airstrikes had forced the Taliban back to the negotiation table, and that the government should be careful not to lose its advantage.

“One of the inherent dangers of a cease-fire is that it allows militants to regroup or reorganize. We will have to increase our intelligence to closely monitor if militants are regrouping or escaping during the cease-fire,” he said.

He added that militant groups which are not in favour of talks may try to disrupt the cease-fire.

Eleven paramilitary soldiers and one child died while 11 other people were wounded when three roadside bombs targeting a polio vaccination team in the lawless Khyber district exploded Saturday, in an attack carried out by the little-known Abdullah Izam Brigade, according to an official.

The Pakistani military earlier on Sunday deployed a helicopter gunship to kill five militants it blamed for the attack, a senior security official said.