KOTKAI, Pakistan - Pakistan's top Taliban leader said yesterday that he was sending fighters to battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan even as he sought peace with the Pakistani government.

The remarks by Baitullah Mehsud could fuel Western concerns that militants were using a peace process introduced by Pakistan's new civilian rulers to step up attacks elsewhere.

Mehsud is based in South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's lawless tribal belt regarded as a rear base for militants fighting in Afghanistan and a refuge for al-Qaeda.

Addressing reporters invited to a hideout in the mountainous region, Mehsud said his group "sincerely wants" peace talks being conducted via tribal elders to succeed.

But he said the holy war would continue until U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

"We are helping the Taliban in the

jihad

against America," the bearded militant leader said, holding an AK-47 assault rifle as he sat in a disused school building in a village called Kotkai.

"We send our people to fight against America, and God willing, we will evict these Americans from Afghanistan the same way the Russian were driven from there," he said.

Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan after a decade-long war against U.S.-backed

mujahedeen

rebels in the 1980s, a period during which Islamic fundamentalism sank deep roots in Pakistan's northwest.

Mehsud denied that militants were sheltering al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden but said he would like to meet him.

"If Osama needs protection in our areas, we will feel proud to shelter him," he said.

Mehsud, 36, heads a militant umbrella group called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan that has declared a cease-fire. As a result, a wave of suicide attacks that have shaken Pakistan in the last year have almost come to a halt.

However, other violence seemed to be on the rise.

Yesterday, two bomb attacks in the northwest - one in regional capital Peshawar and another in a nearby town - killed three people, including a local police chief.

Pakistan's new government, which is headed by the party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has offered peace to any Pakistani militant group willing to lay down its arms.

The government has already struck two peace deals with pro-Taliban clerics in Malakand, a region north of Peshawar where security forces have been battling militants for a year.

Mehsud gave no details of the status of the talks in his region.

American officials are skeptical about the peace talks, arguing that militants emerged stronger from previous deals, including one with Mehsud, and have identified the tribal region as the most likely source of another 9/11-style attack on the West.

Mehsud expressed an ambition to attack the West but said yesterday his group did not yet have the strength.