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    South Asia
     May 20, 2008
Pakistani militants savor a sweet deal
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Pakistani authorities claim that no deal was made regarding the release at the weekend of the country's envoy to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, who had been in the captivity of the Pakistani Taliban for three months.

But this is pure fantasy. There certainly was a deal, orchestrated by pro-al-Qaeda Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, and far from indicating any move on the part of the militants to negotiate, they are expected to launch more and more attacks on Pakistan to build up pressure and minimize Islamabad's role in the United States-led "war on terror".

To underscore this, a suicide bomber on Sunday killed 11 people 

and wounded 22 at a market in Mardan close to a Pakistani military camp in North-West Frontier Province.

On Saturday, Islamabad freed 55 Taliban militants ranging in importance and also paid a sum of 20 million Pakistani rupees (US$287,000) to the militants. In turn, Azizuddin, who had been abducted in Khyber Agency, and dozens of Pakistani security officials were released by the militants.

The freed Taliban included the top commander from eastern Afghanistan, Mufti Yousuf, who had been arrested in Peshawar in Pakistan by a team of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and who was being held in detention at the IB's Karachi's office. Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who was in the custody of the Inter-Services Intelligence, was also handed over to militants in Razmak, North Waziristan.

Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad is expected to be released soon. Aziz was apprehended during the military operation against the radical mosque last year.

The militants had demanded the release of Mullah Obaidullah, a top Taliban commander, but he had already been handed over to coalition forces in Afghanistan. This resulted in a deadlock in negotiations, but the impasse was resolved with the sweetener of the 20 million rupees.

The prisoner negotiations took several weeks, with Mehsud playing from a strong hand in an attempt to rub the the nose of Pakistan establishment into the ground. Mehsud used his captives to insist on the release of captives of similar worth. For instance, he freed two army captains in exchange for some middle-ranking cadre in Pakistani detention centers. These included some suspected of involvement in the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto last December. Non-commissioned security officers were swapped for ordinary jailed militants, while Azizuddin equated to the group of high-profile Taliban militants.

Mehsud has had Pakistan dancing to his tune over the past few months. At the beginning of the year, militants ravaged Pakistan with numerous suicide attacks and then suddenly proposed a peace agreement. Under immense pressure from its vulnerable domestic political and economic situation, Pakistan accepted the peace deal and then also accepted the militants' demand for the swapping of prisoners.

It appears now that Pakistan has very little to play with and the militants will continue to set the rules of the game. The Mardan attack on Sunday is a good example of how quickly they can raise the stakes.

In this case, though, the attack was more likely a response to the missile attack last Wednesday launched by a US drone aircraft in the village of Damadolah in Bajaur Agency. Fourteen people were killed, including some al-Qaeda and Taliban figures.

All the same, for now the militants appear to have the government just where they want it.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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