Pakistan Taliban chief with $5 million US bounty on head ‘open to talks’
Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud said his organisation could be open to talks with Islamabad in a video released Friday, but poured scorn on the idea his men would give up their guns.
Mehsud, who has a $5 million US government bounty on his head, said the militant group would consider negotiations with the Pakistani government but only if it abandoned ties with Washington.
The tape emerged after a spate of high-profile attacks claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) around the northwestern city of Peshawar in recent weeks, including the assassination of senior provincial politician Bashir Bilour.
“If Pakistan is serious about negotiations it will have to give up US slavery. We will then be ready for negotiations,” Mehsud said in the video.
“It is quite ridiculous to ask us to give up arms before entering into negotiations.
“But if Pakistan decides to open talks while remaining US slaves the talks will not succeed because a slave can never take independent decisions.”
He also accused Islamabad of reneging on peace deals in the past under US pressure, but did not elaborate.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, gave Mehsud’s comments a cautious welcome.
“We understand the Taliban’s negotiations offer as a positive step,” he told AFP, although he said the militants must “quit the path of violence”.
“The Taliban should forget whatever has happened to them and we are ready to forget whatever has happened to us,” said the minister, whose son was killed in a bomb blast blamed on the militants.
Pakistan and the United States have been fractious allies in Washington’s “war on terror” and Islamabad has received billions of dollars in American money to reimburse it for the cost of fighting homegrown militants in the northwest.
The alliance is unpopular among many Pakistanis but both sides have been working to improve relations, which plunged into crisis last year over the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Pakistan, and botched air strikes that killed 24 border guards.
Mehsud, who took over the TTP leadership after founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike in August 2009, said they had avenged bin Laden’s death “several times”.
“We consider democracy as un-Islamic,” he said. “The aim of our life is the implementation of the Islamic system. We do not support any political party because we consider them un-Islamic.”
The video, distributed to media organisations in northwest Pakistan, is undated but also shows Mehsud’s deputy Wali-ur Rehman discussing the killing of Bilour on Saturday, which would suggest it was filmed in the past week.
The Taliban has waged a sustained campaign of violence in Pakistan since 2007, claiming responsibility for some of the most high-profile attacks in the troubled country, including the October shooting of schoolgirl campaigner Malala Yousafzai.
US officials believed Mehsud had been killed in a drone strike in northwest Pakistan in January 2010, but in May that year he appeared in a series of videos, claiming responsibility for an attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square and vowing to attack major US cities.
Rehman, who also has a $5 million US government price on his head, accused Bilour’s Awami National Party, which rules in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, of selling the local people for American money.
“Our jihad against them is going on and will continue, their workers will be targeted,” he said.
He also denied recent reports suggesting a leadership struggle between him and Mehsud.
“We have no differences, there was propaganda in the media about a split in the TTP. We are one and united,” he said.
The Pakistani government says more than 35,000 people have died due to bomb blasts and suicide attacks in the country since the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
But there has been a general decline in the number and severity of attacks since 2009, when the army fought major operations against Taliban in the northwestern district of Swat and the tribal district of South Waziristan.