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Tension again runs high in Pakistan tribal region

WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani troops blocked the main road into a troubled region on the Afghan border on Thursday in a confrontation with al Qaeda-linked militants who operate there, a security official said.

Residents of the South Waziristan ethnic Pashtun tribal region said tension was running high because of the blockade which came as Pakistan’s new government was pursuing negotiations in an effort to end militant violence.

The blockade of the road leading to South Waziristan on the Afghan border came after fighters loyal to Baitullah Mehsud, an al Qaeda ally who leads Taliban militants in Pakistan, set up checkposts on the road to exert control over the region.

“The road is blocked to put pressure on the militants to remove the checkposts,” said an intelligence official based in the area.

Hundreds of trucks and cars were backed up along the road from the town of Tank in North West Frontier Province, residents said.

Pakistan’s new government, led by the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is trying to negotiate peace through elders of the Pashtun tribes in the region.

Pakistan saw a wave of suicide bomb attacks after an army assault on a radical mosque in the capital last July, but there was been a lull after the formation of the government in March.

Mehsud is accused of being behind many of the bomb attacks across the country, including the one in which Bhutto was killed in December.

TALKS BREAK DOWN

Mehsud announced a ceasefire last month but his men later said they were rejecting negotiations mediated by tribal elders after the government refused to withdraw troops from their areas.

On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew himself near a police checkpost in the northwestern town of Bannu, killing three people in the first such attack since the talks broke down.

Tribal elders in Waziristan said authorities had asked them to re-establish contacts with Mehsud to revive the talks.

On Wednesday night, militants attacked a police station in the Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province killing a policeman and wounding one.

They also torched two girls’ schools in the valley, a main tourist destination until last year when militants rallied to a radical cleric trying to impose Taliban-style rule, and began attacking police.

The army launched an offensive in the valley in November and hundreds of people have been killed since then.

The new coalition government has called for talks in a bid to break with policies of U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf who tried both military offensives and appeasement to tackle the militants.

Under Musharraf, authorities signed several pacts with militants but critics, including U.S. officials, said such agreements provided an opportunity for the militants to regroup and organise cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Alamgir Bitani

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