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Page last updated at 15:10 GMT, Tuesday, 27 May 2008 16:10 UK

Meeting Pakistan's most feared militant

Baitullah Mehsud, who heads the loose grouping of militants known as the Pakistan Taleban, has given a rare press conference to invited journalists. They included the BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan.

Taleban militants in Pakistan's Waziristan district


"I hope your trip has been enjoyable so far," our host asks us.

Ordinary garden tea party talk except for two things - the venue and the host.

We are in Pakistan's tribal region of South Waziristan. Our host is the region's top Islamic militant, Baitullah Mehsud.

Commander Mehsud has recently been named in Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. Newsweek has labelled him "more dangerous than Osama bin Laden".

President Pervez Musharraf accused him last year of being responsible for dozens of suicide attacks which led Pakistan into emergency rule.

The CIA says he was the brains behind the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto.

With such a reputation, it is not surprising that there is a sense of awe as this short, plump, bearded man greets us.

Breakneck speed

We are part of a group of journalists invited by Mr Mehsud to his stronghold to see for ourselves "the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in its recent campaign in the area".

Pakistan's army and pro-Taleban militants led by Baitullah Mehsud have recently agreed to a ceasefire after being locked in battle for most of 2007.

Baitullah Mehsud
Baitullah Mehsud is reluctant to be photographed

The ceasefire is part of attempts to secure a lasting peace in the area.

Earlier this month the army brought in journalists to show their successes against the militants in January.

Now it's the militants' turn to have their say.

Our journey with the Taleban had begun with a long wait for them at a petrol station in the town of Mir Ali, just inside North Waziristan.

A caravan with over half a dozen vehicles took off, travelling at breakneck speed through beautiful valleys and towering mountains.

Our escorts were on their guard, the speed is as much for security as for safety.

We saw very little of the heavy presence of troops in the area that the government talks about.

We did see plenty of abandoned check posts and bunkers destroyed by the Taleban.

In the town of Makeen in South Waziristan we switched to four-wheel drives.

Our destination was the district of Sararogha, very much the heart of Taleban territory.

Havoc

It was dark when we finally arrived at a madrassa (religious school) high up on the mountains where we stayed in a nearby house for the night.

The next morning we headed down to the valley below to be shown the damage caused by bombing raids carried out by military aircraft.

The villages were a scene of havoc, with almost all the houses having suffered some damage.

Some have been completely destroyed, leaving their owners homeless.

Buildings damaged by air force bombing
Buildings damaged by air force bombing

"I have no money left now," says Ali Khan, a local of Golrama village in the Kotkai area.

Mr Khan's house was bombed by jets after he had fled the fighting with his family.

"I worked in the UAE since 1980 to build this... all my life's savings."

"There are no Taleban in my house, why did the government do this?"

Many families who fled during the intense fighting have been coming home to similar scenes.

Our last stop was Spinkai market which is now a mile long stretch of rubble.

Angry shopkeepers and irate locals line up to express their anger.

"The place they said was used to train suicide bombers is, in fact, a flour mill," says Haji Khan, whose shop was also destroyed.

"We were all traders here and now our means of earning a living is gone."

As he complains, a line of vehicles passes us on its way back to the nearby hamlets and villages.

The ceasefire, it seems, is already starting to take effect.

No choice

But will it last, or go the way other deals have gone before?

destruction after clashes in Waziristan
The army says it has dismantled the Taleban's capacity in the region

In our garden meeting, "Amir Sahib" (honoured leader) - as Baitullah Mehsud is affectionately called by his men - smiles and shakes his head when this query is raised.

Around us, dozens of militants armed to the teeth listen intently to their leader.

"The Taleban are committed to their word," he says.

"The onus is now on the government - whether they hold to their word, or remain in the alliance with the US."

If that persists, Commander Mehsud says, the militants will have no choice but return to their path of resistance.

"We do not want to fight Pakistan or the army. But if they continue to be slaves to US demands, then we our hands will be forced.

"There can be no deal with the US."





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