Senior commander quits Pakistani Taliban

PARACHINAR, Pakistan Mon Jun 27, 2011 9:56am EDT

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PARACHINAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A senior militant commander has for the first time quit the Pakistani Taliban, a defection that could weaken a movement that poses the biggest security threat to the U.S.-backed government.

Fazal Saeed Haqqani, who was the Taliban leader in the Kurram region near the Afghan border, told Reuters he left to protest against what he said was the group's "brutal" attacks on civilians.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, an umbrella alliance of about 12 militant factions, is blamed for many of the suicide bombings across the country.

Saeed Haqqani will now fight the TTP, and would continue to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said his spokesman, Hafiz Saeed. His 500 fighters have formed a new group called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Islami (TTI).

That's good news for the Pakistani military, which has failed to break the back of the TTP despite a series of offensives against its strongholds along the Afghan border.

"Saeed's announcement has opened a floodgate for the Taliban. It benefits the government because more cracks might be seen in the Taliban ranks in coming days," said Rahimullah Yousafzai, an expert on the Taliban.

Mahmood Shah, former security head of seven semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun tribal regions along the Afghan border, said: "It's a very bold decision. It must be worrisome for Taliban militants."

The United States has been pushing Pakistan to step up its fight against militancy since American special forces found and killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town on May 2.

The TTP has put the army on the defensive, carrying out suicide bombings, assaulting a naval base in Pakistan's biggest city Karachi and deploying hundreds of fighters in large-scale attacks on security forces.

Saeed Haqqani is said to have close ties to the Haqqani network, one of the fiercest Afghan insurgent groups battling U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

(Additional reporting by Hasan Mehmood in Orakzai; Writing by Kamran Haider; Editing by Michael Georgy and Robert Birsel)

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