Govt halts air strikes

Updated 04 Mar 2014

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ISLAMABAD: Within 24 hours of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire, the government has also made public its decision to halt air strikes on militant hideouts. But it warned the TTP that troops would retaliate if a terrorist attack took place in any part of the country during the truce.

“After a positive announcement by Taliban, the government has decided to suspend air strikes that have been continuing for a few days,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said in an official statement issued on Sunday after his meeting with Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif.

“However, the government and the armed forces reserve the right to appropriately respond to any terrorist act,” the minister said. Although there is no mention of the minister’s meeting with the army chief in the statement, Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Maj-Gen Asim Bajwa confirmed that Chaudhry Nisar had met Gen Sharif. Commenting on the decision to suspend air strikes, he only said: “The army follows government’s decisions.”

This brief statement by the ISPR chief will, however, not stop further speculation about the military’s views on the ceasefire. The meeting took place hours after helicopter gunships pounded militant hideouts in parts of Bara in Khyber Agency in retaliation for Saturday’s attack on a polio team in Jamrud which left at least 11 people dead.

In his statement, the interior minister again denied that a full-fledged military operation was being carried out in tribal areas and said the government had neither launched any formal operation against militants since taking over the reins in June last year nor carried out any “unwarranted” action. “The actions taken during this period were in retaliation to the terrorist attacks and to prevent [further] such acts,” he explained.

Chaudhry Nisar described the TTP ceasefire announcement as a “positive development”.

On Saturday, the TTP announced the unilateral ceasefire for a month and expressed the hope that the government would do the same. In a statement, its spokesman Shahidullah Shahid claimed that the ceasefire was being declared with all seriousness and good intentions and that the senior leadership had “directed all constituents and groups to respect and fully abide by the ceasefire declaration and restrain themselves from all kinds of Jihadi activities”.

Without elaborating, the spokesman claimed that the government had responded positively to their proposals to end the deadlock in peace talks and move towards a ceasefire.

The TTP has reportedly set two conditions for the ceasefire -- release of all elders, women and children in government custody and a demilitarised safe zone for direct negotiations. It has reportedly been asked to submit a list and if its claim turns out to be true, the government will look into it.

The ceasefire announcements by the two sides have paved the way for resumption of peace talks between the government and TTP committees.

When contacted, coordinator of the four-member government committee Irfan Siddiqui said that there had been no contact between the two committees since the suspension of talks following the execution of 23 Frontier Corps personnel by the Taliban on Feb 17.

He said the government committee was expected to meet in a day or two, most probably on Tuesday, to review the latest development. He said the committee had not been formally informed about the ceasefire by Taliban. It has come to know about it only through the media.

Mr Siddiqui said the committee members would like to meet the interior minister before deciding its future course of action. But he said it appeared that some members of the government team did not want to be part of the process and wanted dissolution of the committee. At their next meeting, he said, the members would also look into the possibility of dissolving the committee if they believed that it was of no use.

On Saturday, retired Maj Amir, a member of the government negotiating team, said it was time the committee was disbanded. He was of the opinion that the members had played their role and now it was for the army to sit in the driver’s seat. The committee has lost its utility.

He suggested that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should constitute a new body comprising Chaudhry Nisar, the governor and chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and a senior representative from the army.

Mr Siddiqui said Maj Amir’s suggestion would be discussed at the next meeting.