- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan I Pakistan on Sunday offered a reward of more than half a million dollars for information leading to the capture, dead or alive, of local Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.

Two national Urdu-language newspapers and local papers in the northwest city of Peshawar carried an advertisement offering 50 million rupees ($615,300) for Mehsud and lesser amounts for 10 other senior militants.

“The government has announced a cash reward for anybody providing authentic information leading to the capture of these [11 men], dead or alive,” said the advertisement. It then lists the wanted men, along with their bounties.

“Innocent people are being killed because of the bloody activities of these so-called defenders of Islam,” the advertisement said.

The United States already has put a $5 million bounty on Mehsud, who is thought to be holed up in the remote tribal regions along the Afghan border.

Pakistan blames Mehsud for a wave of deadly attacks killing hundreds of people here in a two-year insurgency and has vowed to unseat him from his fiefdom in the peaks of South Waziristan.

He is also thought to have been involved in the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and in numerous suicide bombings in major Pakistani cities. Pakistani and U.S. officials charge he has links to al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Fighter jets and helicopter gunships have been pounding Mehsud’s hide-outs for weeks, ahead of an expected ground offensive after a similar operation launched in late April to root out Taliban in and around northwest Swat Valley.

Fayyaz Tooro, home secretary of the North West Frontier Province, said the government’s offer marks the first time Pakistan has come up with a cash reward for Mehsud.

“This list has been issued by the interior ministry and has been published for the first time in close cooperation with security agencies, which provided invaluable information to the government,” Mr. Tooro told Agence France-Presse.

All but two of the 10 other wanted men hail from the tribal belt, with bounties of between 10 million and 15 million rupees each for close aides Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and Qari Hussain, and Taliban spokesman Hakimullah Mehsud.

Analysts and security sources have said the military likely will try to fan rivalries in the Mehsud tribe to gain allies before any operation into the hostile, mountainous territory along the Afghan border.

That strategy was dealt a blow Tuesday when Qari Zainuddin — a rising tribal leader who had defected from Mehsud’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - was assassinated in an attack claimed by the TTP.

Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt has become a stronghold for Taliban and al Qaeda extremists who fled Afghanistan after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001.

At least 12 soldiers were killed Sunday when their convoy came under attack about 30 miles west of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, the military said.

“Ten terrorists were also killed in the exchange of fire with the security forces,” it added.

In a separate militant attack on Tanai Fort in South Waziristan, one officer was killed, the army said in its daily briefing.

Fighter jets meanwhile targeted militant hide-outs near Laddha town in South Waziristan, killing eight rebels, a security official said.

Mehsud, thought to be in his late 30s, set up the TTP umbrella group of tribal militants in 2007, and has steadily extended his influence into the North Waziristan and Bajaur districts and nearby cities of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan.

Pakistan already has offered a 50 million rupee reward for Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah.

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