A high-level U.S. diplomat has met with tribal leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of the effort to end attacks from militants operating along the rugged border between the two countries. The meeting came as news reports from Islamabad say the new government is close to reaching a peace agreement with militants in its troubled tribal areas. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Washington.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher says tribal leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan told him they are willing to work with the United States in an effort to stop violence caused by terrorist groups along the border.
"I just spent an hour, probably an hour and a half with about 10 representatives of various tribal elders, representatives of tribes from the border areas, both the Pakistan side and the Afghan side, and the message I got from them is work with us, support the jirga [assembly of tribal leaders] process," said Richard Boucher. "We can talk these things out, we can bring people over and we can work with you as necessary where there are violent elements that have to be dealt with."
The meeting comes as news reports from Pakistan say the government is negotiating and close to reaching a peace deal with Taliban militants on the border of Afghanistan.
The government opened talks with the Islamist rebels soon after winning elections in February, amid concerns that the military-oriented tactics of President Pervez Musharraf were generating more violence.
Boucher, in an appearance before reporters in Washington, gave qualified support to the negotiations.
"In the end it is the outcome that matters," he said. "Are these agreements going to produce an end to the cross-border infiltration, an end to the suicide bombers that head into other parts of Pakistan as well as into Afghanistan and an end to the plotting and planning of al-Qaida from this area? The gentlemen that I talked to today, the tribal leaders, tribal elders from both sides of the border, said they can."
Earlier this week Pakistan freed a pro-Taliban cleric and signed an accord with his hard-line group, the first major step by the new government to make peace with Islamic militants and break with President Musharraf's policy of using force.
Some analysts are concerned a strategy of negotiation could give Islamic extremists a permanent sanctuary in Pakistan. They believe an earlier cease-fire in the tribal areas allowed al-Qaida and Taliban fighters to regroup and plan attacks against U.S. and other targets.
The head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden, said last month al-Qaida has established a safe haven in Pakistan's border areas, presenting a clear and present danger to the region and to the United States.
Boucher, who oversees U.S. policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan, says any agreements must be enforced.
"We understand that negotiating with the tribes, and I would make a distinction between the tribes and the Taliban and al-Qaida, but negotiating with the tribes, especially, is one of the tactics that needs to be used along with other measures," said Boucher. "But in the end any particular agreement can only be judged by whether it stops militant activity and produces a safer situation for all."
At the White House, Press Secretary Dana Perino declined to comment directly because there has been no official statement from the government of Pakistan.
She did say U.S. officials are urging Islamabad to continue to fight terrorism and not do anything to interfere with ongoing Pakistani security or military operations designed to prevent a safe haven for terrorists there.