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Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 11:01 UK

Pakistan Taleban talks 'halted'

Troops in Lower Dir
The army says at least 25 militants died in the Lower Dir operation

The Taleban's talks with the government in north-west Pakistan have been suspended amid army operations against militants, a Taleban negotiator says.

Pakistani troops and Taleban militants have clashed in Lower Dir in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), forcing hundreds of civilians to flee.

NWFP officials had agreed a deal that would introduce Sharia law in return for an end to the Taleban insurgency.

Critics argued the deal was a capitulation to the militants.

Ameer Izzat Khan, a spokesman for Sufi Muhammad, the cleric who negotiated the deal between the government and the Taleban, said: "Our council of leaders met on Sunday night and decided to suspend peace negotiations with the government in North West Frontier Province."

However, he said the Taleban still wanted to adhere to the peace deal, agreed in February.

Mr Khan said Sufi Muhammad was cut off in his village in Lower Dir and no talks could take place until communication was restored.

"We are demanding a suspension of the operation so that Sufi Muhammad is able to get out of his village."

He added: "The operation is contrary to the peace agreement, and we believe there is no point talking peace when there is violence in the area. But a decision on that will be taken by our [council]."

NWFP's information minister, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, denied there was a military operation in Dir but "an action undertaken in response to an attack on security forces, and it will continue until militants are flushed out of the area".

'Self defence'

The situation in Lower Dir remains tense as families continue to flee the battle zone.

If anyone suspends talks or agreements, we are going to go ahead and set up the new justice system, and violators of the agreement will be punished under this very system
Mian Iftikhar Hussain,
NWFP information minister

The Pakistani military said troops killed another 20 militants on Monday in the Maidan area.

The NWFP government said earlier that at least 25 suspected militants were killed on Sunday when they attacked army convoys.

The clashes started when the government deployed troops in some areas of the district over the weekend.

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says this was presumably to prevent an incursion by militants similar to the recent one in Buner district.

The operation came after 12 children were killed in Lower Dir on Saturday after playing with a bomb they mistook for a football.

Mr Hussain told the BBC Urdu service if the military had been planning a full intervention "we would have started in Buner where the Taleban violated terms of the peace agreement several times".

Residents flee fighting in Pakistan's Lower Dir district, 26 April
Hundreds of civilians have been fleeing the conflict zone

He said of the threat to suspend talks: "If anyone suspends talks or agreements, we are going to go ahead and set up the new justice system there, and violators of the agreement will be punished under this very system."

Civilians have begun leaving the Lower Dir area but many are still trapped in their villages.

Karimullah, a farmer in the Samarbagh area of Lower Dir, told Reuters news agency: "I am leaving everything here and taking my family. We can't take a risk with troops fighting the Taleban."

The Taleban spokesman in Swat, Muslim Khan, accused the government of violating the terms of the peace agreement in Swat.

The Taleban warned of militant attacks in all parts of Malakand division - the group of six districts where the new Sharia law has been enforced - if the military operation in Dir was not halted.

The government and the military say they still want to abide by the terms of the Swat peace deal and consider it intact.

However, they believe that the Taleban are yet to fulfil their part of the deal, which is to disarm and to concede administrative power to government departments.

In Buner, the presence of the Taleban continues in main towns despite an announcement on Friday that they would leave the area and go back to their bases in Swat.

Troops have still not advanced beyond a border village.

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