BAJAUR TRIBAL AGENCY, Pakistan | A senior Pakistani Taliban commander has warned that suicide bombers are waiting in every "nook and cranny" of Pakistan and also have crossed the border to attack U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
In a 70-minute interview conducted near the Afghan border in late August, however, the commander - Maulvi Umar - denied that his group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
"We don´t force anybody to do suicide attacks. They automatically come to us and request a chance to sacrifice their lives for Allah," Umar said. "We teach our children. They study the Koran, understand it and memorize it, and when they become totally ready, then they are recruited for jihad."
Umar answers directly to Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP leader based in South Waziristan, who claims to control Pakistan's seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the scenic Swat Valley, hotbeds of Taliban activity and havens for al Qaeda. Apart from Mehsud, Umar is the only Pakistani Taliban authorized to speak with the news media. He also is the top Taliban commander in Bajaur.
Umar "is definitely on the radar screen," said Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. "If we could get intelligence on where this person is, we would certainly take him out."
Umar said the Pakistani Taliban, like their Afghan brethren, share the ideology of Osama bin Laden and both groups are waging war against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
"However, Afghan Taliban are only active in Afghanistan, but we are active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said. "Here [in Pakistan], we have adapted a defensive strategy. However, in Afghanistan we have resorted to aggression against the NATO forces."
President Bush calls TTP and other militant groups a "mortal threat to Pakistan's future."
Umar is often quoted by Western news agencies, such as Associated Press, making brief statements from his satellite telephone to confirm or deny responsibility for suicide attacks inside Pakistan.
For example, Umar told AP that TTP was responsible for a massive suicide blast at a police checkpoint outside Peshawar on Saturday that killed at least 35 people.
Pakistani officials say at least 1,000 civilians have been killed in suicide attacks in the past year.
Umar rarely gives face-to-face interviews, even to Pakistanis. The last such interview in May ended in tragedy when a senior reporter for the cable news channel Express TV and the Daily Express newspaper was killed by unknown an gunman while leaving the tribal areas.
Umar spoke at length about the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto, who returned from eight years of self-imposed exile on Oct. 18. While en route from the airport in Karachi to address a rally of supporters, a suicide strike on her motorcade killed at least 150 supporters, but Mrs. Bhutto was unhurt.
Umar said Mehsud had spoken directly with Mrs. Bhutto by telephone after the Karachi attack and assured her that she was safe from fighters in his organization. It was not clear, however, whether his group had any role in the Karachi blast.
"Baitullah Mehsud told me that he had talked to the late PPP chairperson and assured her that there was no conflict between them and he would not take any action against her," Umar said.
He was referring to the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Mrs. Bhutto until her Dec. 27 assassination in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi, a suburb of the capital, Islamabad. The party is now led by Mrs. Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who was elected Pakistan's president on Saturday.
Mr. Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, also a PPP member, have sought negotiations with the Taliban but also promised to attack its strongholds when talks falter. The Bush administration has criticized Pakistan for not doing enough to stop attacks into Afghanistan by the Taliban and al Qaeda.
"Every nation has an obligation to govern its own territory and make certain that it does not become a safe haven for terror," Mr. Bush said in a speech to the National Defense University on Tuesday.
Mr. Kiani, the Pakistani Embassy spokesman, said Pakistani jet fighters flew 91 sorties in August alone in Bajaur, the smallest and northernmost of the tribal areas. He said it has deployed more than 120,000 troops in the tribal areas, of whom 1,400 have been killed.
"We are committed to the war on terrorism. It is our own war, and we lost one of our leaders, Benazir Bhutto,in this war against terrorism, and there will be no faltering of resolve on our part," Mr. Kiani said.
"We will not allow our territory to be used for terrorism against us or any other country, be it Afghanistan, the U.S. or anywhere else."
At the same time, Mr. Kiani said, Pakistan's government continues to negotiate with tribal elders and elements that are reconcilable and willing to lay down their arms.
"But we are not going to talk with terrorists," he said.
The U.S.-Pakistan strategy includes creating so-called reconstruction opportunity zones to provide jobs and other benefits to the tribals living in the border areas.
Umar scoffed at the strategy, saying it was mostly public relations.
During a three-day visit by this reporter to Bajaur, Umar allowed himself to be photographed and even permitted the entire interview to be recorded on video.
The interview was heavily advertised by Pakistan's Khabrain media group, slated to be published in its newspaper chain and shown on its cable television station before the Pakistani government halted its release. It was made available to The Washington Times as a result.
The interview, conducted in Urdu, was tense at times.
For example, Umar was asked directly: "If your fight is against America and NATO foreigners, why do you kill innocent Pakistanis in suicide attacks?"
Umar replied: "[The] Taliban is going through a tough time, so it has resorted to these attacks. The suicide bombers always target security forces or government officials, but sometimes innocent people also fall victim to it.
"We always regret that and seek pardon, but it happens in the war. It sometimes becomes difficult to differentiate between the enemy and innocent people in the crowd."
Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National War College in Washington, said she has "mixed feelings" about giving media exposure to terrorist leaders because something that can horrify a Western audience can inspire terrorism elsewhere.
However, when told of Umar's remarks about children memorizing the Koran and then volunteering to blow themselves up, she said:
"If he says he's seeking kids to become suicide bombers, I don't think that would be very inspirational to most Pakistanis."
• Willis Witter contributed to this report from Washington.