Pakistan, Taliban begin talks

February 07, 2014 - 9:19:57 am

ISLAMABAD: Negotiators for Pakistan’s government and the Taliban met for more than three hours yesterday in the first round of talks aimed at ending the militants’ bloody seven-year insurgency.

The two sides gathered in Islamabad for a preliminary meeting to chart a “road map” for future discussions, amid deep scepticism over whether dialogue can yield a lasting peace deal.

Irfan Siddiqui, the government’s chief negotiator, hailed the meeting, saying the Taliban committee had “responded to us beyond our expectations”.

The breakthrough came after an abortive start to talks on Tuesday, which were called off when the government cited doubts over the Taliban negotiating team.

“We are happy that the Taliban committee has have heard our reservations and told us their reservations with an open heart,” Siddiqi told reporters.

“We share the common goal of making this country peaceful in accordance with Islamic teaching. And I thank the Taliban committee for meeting us,” Siddiqui added.

Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, said his side would hold discussions with the Taliban leadership and a second round of talks would be held after they had responded.

Underlining the fragile security situation, a suicide bomber on Tuesday killed eight people in a sectarian attack against minority Shias in the northwestern city of Peshawar, just hours after the abortive start to talks.

The main Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman denied they were behind the blast but a commander for the group in Peshawar said his men were responsible, saying no ceasefire had been announced.

Haq said after yesterday’s talks that both sides had condemned violence and agreed that “there should be no activity by either side which can potentially harm the peace efforts”. TTP has killed thousands of people in gun and bomb attacks across the nuclear-armed state since it launched its campaign in 2007.

The start of the year has seen a surge in militant violence with more than 110 people killed, and an air force bombardment of TTP hideouts in North Waziristan fuelled speculation that a major military offensive was imminent.

There is talk of splits within TTP, a fractious coalition of militant groups, with some rumoured to oppose the whole idea of negotiations.

Saifullah Khan Mehsud, director of the FATA Research Centre, said this made it difficult to achieve even a ceasefire as a first step. “I don’t know if the Taliban are on the same page and which groups that these negotiators are representing, so I don’t know if they can guarantee a ceasefire at all.”

Stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan is seen as important to neighbouring Afghanistan, where US-led Nato troops are pulling out after more than a decade of war.

Washington has said it is watching the talks closely. It has long been pushing Pakistan to take action against militants using Pakistan’s tribal areas as a base to attack Nato forces across the border. AFP