Pakistan has ordered the military to carry out an offensive against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and his fighters, a provincial governor said on the weekend.
The announcement came hours after a bomb in a market killed eight people in a northwest Pakistani town, the latest in a wave of attacks since the army launched an offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat valley northwest of Islamabad.
Mehsud has been blamed for many of suicide attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007, while the Taliban have openly claimed responsibility for others.
Here are some questions and answers about the Pakistani Taliban:
WHO ARE THE PAKISTANI TALIBAN?
Most Pakistani Taliban fighters are ethnic Pashtuns from northwestern regions on the Afghan border. They support the Afghan Taliban, most of whom are also Pashtun and many of whom fled to the Pakistani Pashtun lands after U.S.-led forces ousted Afghanistan's hardline Taliban government in late 2001.
Thirteen factions based in different parts of northwest Pakistan have formed a loose umbrella group, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan, led by Mehsud, based in South Waziristan on the Afghan border.
The United States in March announced a reward of $5 million for information leading to Mehsud's location or arrest.
Mehsud has been accused of being behind a number of suicide attacks since the army stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque in July 2007 to crush a militant movement based there.
But it was when the government named him the chief suspect in the former Prime Minister Bhutto's assassination in 2007 that Mehsud's notoriety rocketed.
The Swat Taliban, who in recent weeks have been fighting a losing battle, are part of the TTP and are headed by a commander called Fazlullah, the son-in-law of a pro-Taliban cleric who led thousands of tribesmen to Afghanistan to fight alongside Taliban after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
While many senior Taliban are veterans of Afghan fighting, they have exploited poverty, frustration over an ineffective judiciary, anger against landlords and widespread anti-U.S. feeling to attract recruits. Intelligence officials say they also press families to send sons to fight.
ARE THE PAKISTANI TALIBAN LINKED TO AL QAEDA?
Intelligence officials and security experts say Mehsud is an al Qaeda ally and their cooperation has been increasing. He has given refuge to many foreign militants, including Arabs and Central Asians, but the nature of his ties with al Qaeda leaders, thought hiding on the Afghan-Pakistani border, is unclear.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE AFGHAN TALIBAN?
The TTP swears allegiance to Mullah Omar, chief of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and sends fighters across the border to Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban are fighting what they call Western "occupation" forces. The Pakistani Taliban support that and also want their version of Islamist rule in Pakistan.
There are differences between the groups on whether to fight Pakistani security forces. Some oppose violence in Pakistan and want all Taliban to focus on Afghanistan. But leaders such as Mehsud and Fazlullah argue that fighting Pakistani forces is justified because of Pakistan's support for the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.
Militant groups focused on fighting in Afghanistan recently set up the Ittehad-e-Shura-e-Mujahideen, or Union of the Consultative Council of Mujahideen, with the TTP. Analysts saw the move as aimed at forging unity in the face of a build-up of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
ANY LINKS WITH OTHER MILITANT GROUPS?
Intelligence officials say the Pakistani Taliban have also forged links with militant groups drawn from central Punjab province, giving the Taliban the ability to expand their influence out of the Pashtun-dominated northwest. One of these groups, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni Muslim militant group, is regarded as one of al Qaeda's main fronts in Pakistan.
(Reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Jerry Norton)