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Page last updated at 23:25 GMT, Friday, 24 July 2009 00:25 UK

Pakistan's South Waziristan puzzle

By Syed Shoaib Hasan, Islamabad
BBC News

Pakistan army troops patrol on a road to ensure the security in Bannu, a town on the edge of Pakistan"s lawless tribal belt Waziristan, Thursday, July 9, 2009.

What is Pakistan's government up to in South Waziristan?

Since the middle of May, the army has been conducting a military offensive against Pakistan's Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud - whose hideout lies in the mountainous terrain there.

But unlike the recent operation in the Swat valley, it says it has refrained from going all out against the militants so far.

The reasons for this are not exactly clear.

The army says it wants to surround the militants and use air power and artillery to ''soften them up".

"We are just punishing them at the moment," says Maj General Athar Abbas, head of the army's public relations wing.

"This is so that when the operation starts they can't stand up to us. We have surrounded the entire area where the Taliban are based," he says.

If this is true, the army appears in a prime position to fulfil its mission to "eliminate" Baitullah Mehsud and his organisation.

But it appears in no mood to begin the much-heralded military assault which already has a name - Rah-e-Nijat or Path to Deliverance.

"We are waiting for the right time to launch the operation," says Gen Abbas.

Taliban truce?

But the fact that people have had to wait so long for a serious assault on militants has led to fears, not without precedent, about a possible deal between the army and the Taliban.

One of the allegations concerns correspondence between Baitullah Mehsud and the head of Pakistan's army.

Maj Gen Athar Abbas flatly denied the report.

"The army will not even consider such a possibility. This is utter speculation," he said.

Gen Abbas said the army was fully committed to its goal of defeating the Taliban.

But there are those who feel the army and the Taliban are engaging in battle only because of certain "misunderstandings".

Foremost among these is Shah Abdul Aziz, a former Pakistani parliamentarian.

Maulana Abdul Aziz - of red mosque

He has been trying to negotiate a truce between Pakistan's security forces and the Taliban. For some time Mr Aziz has acted as a mediator between the government and the Taliban and other extremists.

He enjoys very close relations with the Taliban leadership and with radical clerics such as the head of Islamabad's Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz.

Mr Aziz played a key role when in 2007 Pakistani security forces laid siege to the Red Mosque after dozens of radical Islamists barricaded themselves inside.

He was a key figure in mediating between the mosque administration and the government. Although that episode ended with troops storming the mosque killing scores of militants, Mr Aziz has continued in his role as a negotiator.

He was the man behind the Taliban's statement that it would cease operations against the army in December 2008, soon after the Mumbai attacks.

Missing letter

Mr Aziz's most recent project has been to try and "resolve" the stand-off between Baitullah Mehsud and the government.

Elders from Pakistan"s Jani Khail tribes arrive to attend a meeting to discuss the situation of the area, Sunday, June 28, 2009 in Bannu, Pakistan
The tribal district of South Waziristan has seen some anti-Taliban assaults

In this regard, he is said to have delivered a letter from Baitullah Mehsud to General Ashfaq Kayani, the head of Pakistan's army.

Subsequently, Mr Aziz has gone missing amid reports he was arrested outside the house of radical cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz.

"He was picked up on the morning of 27 May along with a man called Fidaullah," says Khalid Khawaja, an ex-ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence agency] official turned human rights activist.

Fidaullah was later produced by the Islamabad police in a highly publicised press conference as the "mastermind" of a spate of recent suicide bombings.

Mr Aziz, however, has not been heard from.

Senior security officials have told the BBC that he is in detention and being interrogated for his links with Baitullah Mehsud.

They say a letter was discovered on his person from the Taliban commander, but it was for a former head of Pakistan's ISI agency.

The letter is said to discuss the various alternatives available to Baitullah Mehsud and his militants.

But officials deny any letter addressed to the army chief was found or even existed.

Mr Khawaja, a close confidant of Mr Aziz, denies that his friend was in any way directly involved in planning or abetting militant acts.

"He was a peaceful and well intentioned man," he says.

"Shah Abdul Aziz did not want a conflict to take place between the Taliban and the army as it would cost the nation dear.

"I have been trying to register a police complaint for his recovery, but the police have refused to act so far," Mr Khawaja says.

Baitullah Mehsud

As far as the mysterious letter letter to the head of Pakistan's army is concerned, Mr Khawaja confirms its authenticity.

"I have seen the letter, and it is has now been delivered to its destination," he says.

These developments come days after a pro-government tribal leader accused the government of making a deal with Baitullah Mehsud.

Turkistan Bhittani, leader of the anti-Baitullah Mehsud group in Waziristan, had until recently been accorded the complete support of Pakistan's security forces.

But, on 14 July, he accused the authorities of closing down his offices in the Dera Ismail Khan district bordering Waziristan.

"The government is openly supporting the Baitullah group and allowing it to re-establish itself," he told reporters.

Although, the government strongly rejects any such suggestion, every previous operation against the Taliban has ended in a peace deal.

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