09/06/2006, 00.00
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Pakistan "cedes" North Waziristan to rebel tribesmen

Restive tribesmen, seen by many as pro-al-Qaeda, will retain military control over the area after battering government forces several times. In exchange they pledge to expel any foreigners even though they also claim that none are left.

Peshawar (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Restive tribesmen in the North Waziristan region on the border with Afghanistan signed a peace agreement with the government on Tuesday putting an end to a conflict that has lasted several years. The tribesmen, seen by many as allies of the Talibans and al-Qaeda, will retain military control of the area although their power won't take any formal political-administrative shape. In exchange, they pledged to stop attacks on government installations and security forces and halt cross-border movement by Taliban supporters fighting the Kabul government. The Pakistani army immediately began leaving its positions in the region, handing them over to the local tribesmen.

For its part, the government promised not to undertake any ground or air operation against the militants and resolve the issue through local customs and traditions.
Both parties (army and tribesmen) will return each other's weapons, vehicles and communication tools seized during various operations, but the tribesmen will not be allowed to have heavy weaponry.

The agreement said the government would pay compensation for the loss of life and property of innocent tribesmen during its operations. It also required foreigners living in North Waziristan to leave Pakistan but those who cannot leave will be allowed to live peacefully as long as they respected the law of the land. Osama bin Laden and other leaders of al-Qaeda are believed to be among the foreigners who have taken refuge in the area.

Abdullah Farhad, a spokesman for the tribesmen, denied there were any foreign militants in North Waziristan, saying that those who thought otherwise should provide evidence of their presence.

Ali Mohammed Jan Aurakzai, governor of North West Frontier province since May, said that the agreement was unprecedented in the history of the tribal areas, adding that he hoped the conflict would be resolved rapidly and in a friendly manner.

The deal is widely viewed as a face-saving retreat for the Pakistani army, which has taken a heavy battering at the hands of the mountain tribesmen and militants. The government has in effect ceded the militants a sanctuary in North Waziristan.

In three years of fighting the army has lost some 500 soldiers and hundreds of civilians and militants have been killed.

Since July 20, the rebels had observed a unilateral cease-fire.

The agreement was reached a day before a visit by President Pervez Musharraf to Afghanistan, where rebel operations and ranks have swelled this year in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Afghanistan has been vocal in blaming Pakistan for allowing insurgents to use the area as a rear base. (PB)

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