ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistan said Sunday it was suspending a military operation against insurgents in a tribal region for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan but warned any provocations in the area would bring immediate retaliation.
A Taliban spokesman welcomed the decision to halt the strikes in the Bajur tribal region, a rumored hideout of Osama bin Laden near the border with Afghanistan.
In another part of the northwest, a blast blamed on a missile reportedly killed four suspected foreign militants. Residents said they saw a drone in the air shortly before the explosion, raising suspicion the U.S. was behind the strike.
Pakistan's 5-month-old government at first tried peace talks with militants, but those efforts bore little fruit. It has turned to force in recent weeks, including using helicopter gunships and jets to strike suspected insurgent hideouts.
The operation in Bajur began in early August. Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said Sunday the operation has killed more than 560 people the government says were Islamist insurgents and has displaced more than 300,000 people. Malik did not commit to a formal end to the operation but said people displaced from Bajur could return to the region "without any fear."
American officials have pressed Pakistan to crack down on militants in its tribal regions, fearing Taliban and al-Qaida-linked fighters involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan use those border areas as safe zones. The U.S. is suspected of launching a series of missile strikes targeting alleged militant compounds in Pakistan's rugged and lawless tribal region along the border.
Malik said the suspension of operations in Bajur would take effect by early today and army spokesman Maj. Murad Khan said the military had halted its activities by late Sunday.
Bajur has been the primary focus of military operations against insurgents, though there have also been clashes in the northwestern Swat Valley.
The numbers and scope of the operations have been almost impossible to confirm because of the remote, dangerous nature of the regions. The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for a string of recent suicide attacks, calling them revenge for the offensives.
As the crackdown has proceeded, Pakistan's government has become increasingly embroiled in political turbulence.
A short-lived ruling coalition forced Pervez Musharraf the longtime U.S. ally in the war on terror to quit the presidency on Aug. 18. The coalition then rapidly fell apart over disputes about Musharraf's successor and how to reinstate judges he fired last year.
Asif Ali Zardari, the head of the main ruling Pakistan People's Party and the widower of slain ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is considered the favorite to win lawmakers' votes for the presidency on Sept. 6.
The PPP is considered generally in line with U.S. goals in fighting extremists, but because of deep anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, it has to tread carefully. Many Pakistanis blame the violence in their country on Musharraf's decision to support the U.S.
Malik insisted Pakistan was not taking American orders on how to fight extremists in its midst.
"We are fighting this war. This is our war. There is no question of America's dictation," Malik said.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar said the suspension of the operation in Bajur was welcome, and he reiterated an offer to negotiate with the government. However, he said militants would not lay down their arms as the government has demanded.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Maulvi Umar also said that, as a gesture of goodwill, the militants would release six paramilitary troops out of 30 they claim to have in captivity.
It was not immediately clear whether authorities were also suspending military operations in Swat.
Muslim Khan, a Taliban spokesman in Swat, said militants would not halt their activities during Ramadan despite any suspension of an army operation.
"This is not a war, but jihad, and this is our faith that rewards for good deeds and that is multiplied during the holy month," Khan said.