ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Taliban-style militants battling government forces in northwest Pakistan say they want dialogue with the winners of parliamentary elections and are urging the new leadership to abandon President Pervez Musharraf’s war on terror.
The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, which will lead the new government, has called for an end to military operations against autonomy-minded insurgents in another restive area the southwestern province of Baluchistan where the U.S.-backed Afghan government believes the Taliban leadership may be hiding.
Opposition parties trounced Musharraf’s allies in Feb. 18 parliamentary elections widely seen as a public repudiation of Musharraf’s policies including his alliance with Washington in the war on terror.
The election results have fueled calls for Musharraf to step down both inside and outside Pakistan. Two U.S. senators on Sunday urged a “graceful exit” from power for the unpopular president, but stopped short of supporting efforts to remove him from office.
“I firmly believe if they do not focus on old grudges and there’s plenty in Pakistan and give him a graceful way to move,” then it could happen, said Joe Biden, a Democrat from Delaware who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison echoed the sentiment. Both spoke on ABC television’s “This Week” after meeting with Musharraf.
Maulvi Umar, spokesman for the Islamic militant Tehrik-e-Taliban, said his group welcomed the victory of anti-Musharraf parties and was anxious to talk with them about ways to bring peace to northwestern tribal areas, where U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden himself may be hiding.
“We hope after the government comes into power, they will not make the mistake of continuing the existing policies and will bring peace to the people of tribal areas,” the spokesman told The Associated Press by telephone Sunday. “We want peace and are looking for dialogue with those who got elected.”
U.S. and Pakistani officials have blamed the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, for masterminding Bhutto’s Dec. 27 assassination. Her Pakistan People’s Party finished first in the Monday vote.
More than 80,000 Pakistani soldiers have been battling Islamic extremists in the mountainous northwest, but have failed to crush the insurgency. A unilateral cease-fire called by the militants this month has reduced the level of fighting.
However, violence continues, and a suspected militant attack late Saturday on a government checkpoint near Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, killed two paramilitary soldiers and one policeman, local police official Zulfikar Khan said.
Musharraf’s critics have long complained that military operations have worsened the security situation in the border areas, and have urged the government to combat extremism through dialogue and economic incentives. They say a new approach is needed to build public support.
However, U.S. officials fear a dialogue-based strategy may end up giving al-Qaida and other hardline Islamists a sanctuary in Pakistan. American officials believe a 10-month cease-fire in mountainous North Waziristan, which collapsed last year, enabled al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban fighters to regroup after being driven by U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan.
A survey released by the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute in early February found that three-quarters of the 3,845 Pakistanis polled considered Islamic extremism a serious problem. But only 9 percent believed the country should cooperate with the United States in the war against terror. The poll was conducted Jan. 19-29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.69 percentage points.
Associated Press writers Habibullah Khan in Bajur, Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Sadaqat Jan and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.