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Pakistani security forces have eased an operation against insurgents in a tribal region near the border with Afghanistan as local elders try to negotiate peace with a militant leader, a government official said yesterday.

Muhammad Ali, an official at the government's crisis management centre, said the operation in the Khyber area was still under way, "but in a mild tone."

Ali said the government had halted the demolition of militant centres and that a round-the-clock curfew in the troubled town of Bara a key focus of the operation was being relaxed from 9 am to 5 pm.

The offensive was launched June 28 to flush out militants threatening the nearby city of Peshawar and to secure a road used to send supplies to US-led forces in Afghanistan. It is a shift for Pakistan's new government, which has sought to end militant violence primarily through peace deals since coming to power after February elections.

A key target of the operation is Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group headed by Mangal Bagh that is accused of trying to impose its own Taliban-style Islamic rule in Khyber.

Amal Khan, leader of a 35-member council of elders, said he had met with Bagh and the militant leader showed interest in peacefully ending the operation.

"Today, I will meet with the government to inform it of what we discussed with Mangal Bagh," Khan said.

On Saturday, shops in Bara were open, selling cloth, electronics and food. Paramilitary forces had only a minor visible presence in the area.

The new government's attempts to reach peace deals with the militants has been criticized by the United States, where officials say the deals will simply give militants time to regroup and intensify attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan.

But the recent military operation has also faced criticism, with sceptics noting that it has met with scant resistance and appears to have led to the death of only one militant. Many militants apparently fled before the operation started.

The Ministry of Interior said it has arrested 92 "criminals" and seized large caches of arms and ammunition in Khyber, and that 128 other suspects have been arrested and drugs and weapons seized separately in Peshawar.

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