Pakistan pulls troops from Afghan border area
Bin Laden not hiding there, general says
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- After more than two years of battling remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan's government has announced it will end its military operation in the tense tribal region of South Waziristan.
The province along the border with Afghanistan is among the potential hiding places for Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
The announcement late Friday came a day after a Pakistani army commander said repeated searches by the military have failed to turn up any trace of bin Laden in the tribal lands.
"(Bin Laden) requires his own protection, and the kind of security apparatus that he is supposed to have around him, that gives a very big signature," said Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, military chief of northwest Pakistan, according to a translation from Reuters News Agency.
"There is not an inch of South Waziristan or the tribal area which we have not swept time and again, and if he was here in the tribal areas, I can assure you that he wouldn't have escaped my eyes and ears."
A senior intelligence official said that the army has begun withdrawing its troops from South Waziristan. Pakistan forces will remain in other tribal areas to monitor the border region.
Intelligence sources said the government reached a deal with the region's five most-wanted militants, who agreed to stop their resistance and not harbor any foreign militants.
The agreement required the government to announce clemency for the five wanted militants, pay compensation for property damage and release all prisoners.
Pakistan's government also agreed to remove all military checkpoints from Wana, a flashpoint of violence in South Waziristan.
The province is an extremely mountainous region divided into North Waziristan, inhabited by farming Wazir tribes, and South Waziristan, populated by seminomad Mahsuds. The two tribes have constant blood feuds.
The Pakistan army entered the area in 2002 to launch an operation against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters as well as extend the writ of the government to the remote tribal regions.
The deployment came after a U.S.-led invasion at the end of 2001 ousted the Taliban rulers and bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network from Afghanistan.
Since the beginning of the operation, Pakistan's military has negotiated on-and-off with tribal elders in the region to stop harboring the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
More than 250 Pakistani soldiers have been killed since the operation began in 2002, according to one official.
The agreement was finalized at a loya jirga, or grand council, attended by 400 tribal elders and government representatives at the house of North Western provincial governor Lt. Gen. (retired) Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah.
Shah said the agreement would not halt the search for bin Laden and other al Qaeda militants, noting that Pakistani troops would remain in the northern part of Waziristan Province.
"The hunt for foreign militants in Masood area, which constitutes 55 percent of the area, will continue and the army is very much there," Shah said.
However, the major operation involving hundreds of thousands of Pakistani forces to rout out al Qaeda and Taliban elements had been taking place in Southern Waziristan, not the Masood area.
The main opponent of the military operation said he was skeptical the military would end the operation.
Qazi Hussain Ahmed, president of the religious parties' alliance, said the army has not kept its word on other agreements.
Ahmed, whose alliance also runs two provincial governments, said he believes the military will maintain its presence in South Waziristan.
However, the military chief of northwest Pakistan stood by the agreement.
"Peace has been restored in Wana and now the military will not use force in any part of the area," Hussain said.
He expressed the hope that the tribesmen also would fulfill their responsibility to maintain peace in their area.
CNN's Syed Mohsin Naqvi contributed to this report.