ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A top Taliban leader in Pakistan with links to al-Qaida has ordered a cease-fire as part of a deal being negotiated with the country's new government, according to Taliban and Pakistani officials.
Baitullah Mehsud, leader of one of Pakistan's largest extremist forces, issued a pamphlet directing his fighters to end attacks on Pakistani security forces in the country's troubled tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province, according to a spokesman for Mehsud's Pakistani Taliban. Mehsud, who has been accused of masterminding the plot to kill former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, ordered the halt to extremist activities as part of an agreement that calls for prisoner exchanges and a withdrawal of Pakistani military forces from areas near the Afghan border.
"We have reached a final stage of an agreement with the Pakistani authorities for a peace deal," said Maulvi Omar, spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban.
Pakistani officials familiar with the terms of the deal said, however, negotiations with extremists are ongoing.
A Pakistani official in Islamabad said the negotiations with Mehsud and other pro-Taliban fighters were handled by provincial government officials in the North-West Frontier in consultation with two of Pakistan's top political leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif.
"In principal, a negotiations route has been agreed upon to ensure peace also while keeping up pressure of force on those who will not lay down arms," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the country's ruling Pakistan People's Party. Babar declined to discuss specifics of the deal with Mehsud, but he said the government is negotiating with a number of pro-Taliban groups.
The move by Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its antiterrorism efforts, has been received cautiously by U.S. officials here and has provoked skepticism from the White House. Under the leadership of President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan has previously brokered peace deals with extremists, but those deals have collapsed. Critics of the deals say they allowed Taliban and al-Qaida fighters to recruit and lead guerrilla operations across the Afghan border from safe havens in the remote tribal regions of North and South Waziristan. Last year, a 10-month cease-fire brokered by the Pakistani military collapsed after extremists launched an attack that killed 44 people in North Waziristan.
"We have been concerned about these types of approaches because we don't think they work," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Wednesday in Washington.