After weeks of escalating battles with government troops, Taliban militants declared a cease-fire Wednesday - a move likely to frustrate U.S. officials who have urged Pakistan to act decisively against Islamic radicals ensconced in the country's tribal belt.
Previous cease-fires in the tribal areas have been harshly criticized by the United States and other Western governments, which say the militants have used such truces to rearm and regroup.
The government of President Pervez Musharraf did not confirm that a truce had been struck, but Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said the government was ready for "dialogue" with the militants. In the past, such announcements by the militants have signaled an imminent accord.
If a cease-fire sticks and militants halt attacks, it could boost Musharraf's popularity as his political allies prepare for crucial Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.
But the negotiation strategy has mostly backfired in the past, with militants failing to honor agreements.
A spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a militant umbrella group, said the new cease-fire would include not only the tribal belt along the Afghan border but also the restive Swat region to the east where the army has also battled pro-Taliban fighters. Witnesses said army troops had begun dismantling checkpoints and pulling back from areas where fighting had raged in recent days.
A truce might provide a pre-election respite from suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of people across Pakistan in recent months, including one in the garrison city of Rawalpindi this week that killed about eight people. Such violence has all but halted mass election gatherings.
Word of this latest accord came a day after the U.S. director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, told a Senate panel that Pakistan faces an "existential threat" from militants concentrated in the tribal areas.
Such groups, McConnell said, have lately been growing in strength and sophistication, rebuilding networks disrupted by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and becoming better able to recruit and train members.
Information from the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.
On other fronts in Pakistan Wednesday:
-Three senior army generals, including the commander in restive South Waziristan, were killed in a helicopter crash blamed on technical problems.
-In Karachi, the country's largest city, gunmen killed a senior official of the Awami National Party, a secular group representing Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun minority. Hundreds of party supporters rioted in response to the shooting of party Vice President Fazal Rahman Kakakhel, torching vehicles and firing guns in the air. The attack and ensuing violence raised fears that the government could again postpone Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.